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Women urged not to ignore invitations for smear tests
A FIFTH of Cumbrian women invited for a smear test do not attend, even though cervical screening helps save the lives of 4,500 women in England every year.
HANNAH UPTON looks at the importance of going through a few minutes of minor discomfort to avoid a potentially fatal disease.
When mum-of-two Tracey Hamer received a letter from her GP surgery calling her to attend her first cervical screening test, she did not hesitate.
The 26-year-old felt healthy and well, and was surprised when she was recalled for a second test due to irregularities.
Tracey, from Burneside, said: “When the second test came back with abnormal cells I was really shocked. I felt so well and healthy. There were no symptoms. I would never have known anything was wrong if I hadn’t gone for the screening.
“I was referred to Kendal’s Westmorland General Hospital where I had an out-patients appointment. I just went in and they did the loop procedure which removed all the abnormal cells.”
Loop diathermy is the most common treatment method used for abnormal cervical cells, which are removed using a small wire that is heated electrically. The loop seals the area as it goes and the treated areas usually heal within a few weeks. Most women have this treatment at a hospital outpatient clinic and a local anaesthetic is used to numb the cervix.
If left untreated, abnormal cells in the cervix can go on to become cancerous, causing cervical cancer.
The treatment is quick and Tracey was able to go home afterwards.
She said: “It was very quick and painless. I am just so glad I went for my cervical screening, otherwise I’d never have known these abnormal cells were there.
“This all started last July and since then I have had to go for checkups every six months, but I just had one and no more abnormal cells have been found so I can now go for annual checkups.
“I’ve told all my female family and friends to make sure they go for their cervical screenings when they receive their letters. It’s a two-minute job that’s worth doing rather than risk your health.”
Following the death of Big Brother contestant Jade Goody in 2009 there was a surge in the number of women attending screenings, resulting in a record number getting tested.
Before she died, the TV star admitted she had ignored letters saying abnormal results had been found during a smear test for a fourth time, because she was ‘too scared’ to go back to hospital.
However, the so-called ‘Jade Goody effect’ has fallen away and numbers are now at a ten-year low. Take up for screening is at its lowest in the 25 to 35 age group, which is concerning to doctors as the average age for women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 39.
One Kendal woman, who did not wish to be named, said she was terrified when she was told abnormal cells had been found in her first test at age 25.
She said: “As soon as I got the results I was trawling the internet, reading all about Jade Goody and worst-case scenarios. It’s only natural to worry but there was no way I was going to bury my head in the sand about it.
“I was referred to hospital for an outpatient's appointment and the doctor performed an examination called a colposcopy.
“He could see the area of abnormal cells and did a cone biopsy, which meant taking a little triangular sample of the cells. It was uncomfortable and painful for a few minutes but when the results came back, it was the lowest level of abnormality.
“I had a further smear at the hospital which came back clear. Sometimes there is just an infection there that can come and go between screenings. I have now been referred back to my GPs to have tests every six months.
“It is an uncomfortable thing to go through and you feel a bit undignified but I would appeal to anyone thinking about skipping the test to think how much worse the situation could be if you leave it for years.”
In Cumbria last year, 82 per cent of women over 25 had a smear test, which is above the national average of 79 per cent, but showed one in five women did not take the opportunity for screening.
Women are first invited for a cervical screen just before their 25th birthday and the test is usually carried out by a GP or practice nurse.
During the smear test, which takes around five minutes, a small brush is used to wipe the surface of the cervix and gather cells for testing. If any abnormal cells are detected, the woman will be contacted to discuss further action and possibly treatment.
If it is needed, treatment is a minor procedure and is usually done in an outpatient clinic.
Dr Rebecca Wagstaff, NHS Cumbria's Deputy Director of Public Health, said: "It's so important that women, who receive a letter inviting them to go for cervical screening, do so.
“Changes in the cervix don't usually lead to cervical cancer, but they can. If these changes are detected early enough, then the drastic treatment and distress that cancer can cause can be avoided.”
Robert Music, dDirector of the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Every day eight women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and three lives are lost to the disease. Cervical screening can help reduce these numbers.
“The screening programme saves 5,000 lives each year in the UK yet 20% of women are not attending their cervical screening test. The more we can do to stress the importance of this life saving test the better.”
- Approximately 3,000 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK, and around 900 die from the disease every year.
- In Cumbria, 32 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008.
- Women aged between 25 and 49 years old are invited to attend screening every three years, and between 50 and 64 years old, every five years.
- Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. Screening prevents cancer by detecting and treating early abnormalities which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer of the cervix.
- Cervical cancer is predominantly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which can be caught as soon as you start having intimate relationships.
- There have long been calls for the age for a first smear test to be brought down from 25 to 20, in line with Wales and Scotland.
NHS guidance says it is 25 because changes in the young cervix are normal and testing could lead to unnecessary treatment.