By Sarah Campbell
Recent campaigns such as #smearforsmear, from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, and Glasgow’s flower wall, from NHS Scotland and the Scottish government, have urged women to go for their cervical screening test, and emphasised the importance of the routine procedure.
Behind each flower on the wall in Glasgow read the slogan, “Nip It In The Bud” and the #smearforsmear campaign asked people to smear their lipstick in a selfie and post it to social media. Both campaigns helped to encourage women to go for their potentially life-saving test.
STV have reported that one in four women in Scotland is missing out on their smear, with uptake at a ten year low.
Smear tests, or cervical screening tests, detect abnormal cells on the cervix, and the detection and removal of such cells can prevent cervical cancer. Women are asked to attend screenings every three years between the ages of 25 and 49, and every five years between the ages of 50 and 60. If my sums are correct, this amounts to 10 over a lifetime for the average woman.
Campaigners say the five-minute test is the best way to protect women from the cancer and can help save around 5,000 lives a year in the UK.
Every week, six women in Scotland are diagnosed with cervical cancer; it’s the most common cancer for women aged 25-35, and yet one in three of these women skip their smear test.
An “unfashionable” cancer that previously received little press coverage – hence very little information available to sufferers – cervical cancer has now been brought into the public sphere, thanks to campaigns and charities, such as Jo’s Trust.
So it’s a big deal – but why are so many women ignoring letter after letter, urging them to go for their test?
From personal experience I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable and one message to the girls’ group chat reveals some colourful stories. One friend fainted mid-exam, came round and the nurse was still chatting away, she had to tell her “oh sorry, I just fainted”, and then was made to sit for half an hour with a juice before being able to leave, and one nurse couldn’t find another friend’s cervix.
But we’ve all done it and, most importantly, we’re all healthy.
The embarrassment factor is definitely understandable; having a stranger peer into your vagina is a strange strange experience and does explain why attendance is low; or women may also not realise the importance of the test and don’t go because they’re too busy.
It’s younger women, aged 25-29, who are most likely to skip their test, and it seems the only way to encourage these women to go is through continued governmental and charity campaigns, educating us of the risks of not going.
Female health is very hush hush and a good strategy to help change this would be to give more information to school-children and encourage them to take ownership of their bodies, to make them want to look after them and protect them. Then when, at 25, they do get an invitation from their GP to book in for their smear test, they won’t be filled with fear. And for those who don’t go because they don’t have time, they’ll have been informed of the importance and realise that they must simply make the time.
It’s five minutes and I really do think we women are guilty of letting self-consciousness get in the way of our health. It’s a wonderful thing that we are offered smears and the campaigns – often built on the memories of women who have lost their battles with this terrible disease – shouldn’t be ignored.
We owe it to the women who have lost their battles with cervical cancer to listen to the campaigns set up in their name and in their memory. For Jo, and all others like her, we must take a deep breath, phone the doctors and go for the test.