Why are smear tests so important?

Smear tests, or cervical screenings, are free tests which can help prevent cervical cancer through detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. It is important to detect if these cells are present because, if untreated, abnormal cells might later develop into cervical cancer. The cervical screenings are offered to people registered as ‘female’ with a GP surgery between ages 25 and 64. The frequency in which screenings are offered varies with age.

Smear tests can prevent 75% of cervical cancers

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 and just under 1,000 people lose their lives to the disease each year. It is estimated that each day, nine people are diagnosed with cervical cancer and two people lose their lives. However, according to Jo’s Trust, a charity dedicated to providing information and support to those affected by cervical cancer, smear tests can prevent 75% of cervical cancers. So why are more than 1.2 million people not attending appointments each year?

Why are so few attending their smear tests?

An estimated third of young women are reported to not attend their smear tests due to embarrassment about their bodies. Additionally, many people do not think they have the time to attend an appointment due to other work and family commitments. The former can be solved quite easily by being more flexible with appointments in the workplace, but it is clear that people need encouragement to start putting their health first.

An estimated third of young women are reported to not attend their smear tests due to embarrassment about their bodies

Exacerbating already present barriers are the many myths surrounding smear tests, which put people off attending their appointments. Addressing these myths is key to overcoming low rates of attendance. So what are these myths and what are the truths?

Myth: “Smear tests are tests for cancer”

Fact: This is a common misconception of smear tests. Screenings detect abnormal cells on the cervix. In fact, 94% of tests come back as normal and many others will show changes in the cells on the cervix. Although these changes can, in some cases, develop into cervical cancer, this result does not mean that an individual has the disease.

94% of tests come back as normal

Myth: “Smear tests are painful”

Fact: Although smear tests can cause slight discomfort, they should not be painful. If a screening does cause some slight pain, it can be a sign of another condition which may need treatment, so it is important to make the doctor carrying out the test aware of this.

Myth: “Cervical cancer affects young people”

Fact: This perception that cervical cancer only affects young people is not true, as cervical cancer can affect anyone with a cervix at any age. This misconception can lead people to delay their test. In fact, half of people who lose their lives to the disease are over the age of 65.

Myth: “The risk of cervical cancer can’t be reduced or prevented by a smear test”

Fact: A third of young women do not think the risk of cervical cancer can be reduced, and 20% of women over the age of 50 do not think that smear tests can reduce this risk. However, as mentioned earlier, through detecting abnormal cells, smear tests can be a preventative measure. People may use this belief to excuse away not attending their screening, but not attending is actually a risk factor in developing cervical cancer.

20% of women over the age of 50 do not think that smear tests can reduce this risk

These are just a few of the myths that can discourage people from attending their screening.

However, cervical screenings are actually a relatively simple process taking five minutes to carry out and results are given within two weeks. Although screenings may seem embarrassing, the process is something experienced by many others and an important part in taking care of health. It is also important to note that the staff who carry out the process have plenty of experience and are trained to treat individuals with respect and dignity. In addition, you can ask to have a nurse or doctor of your preferred gender carry out the screening to help make the process more comfortable.

What else can people do to help reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer?

So, what else can you do to help reduce your risk of developing the disease? There are a number of things you can do, including:

  • being aware of the symptoms and getting medical advice if experiencing any of these,
  • having the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination (ages 11-18), and
  • knowing where to access support and information.

You can also get involved in Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (running Monday 21st – Sunday 27th January) by helping to raise awareness of the importance of smear tests and other preventative measures or even donating to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to support them in their mission.