Awareness Days, International Women's Day

International Women’s Day – Cervical Screening Awareness

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day; a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, to raise awareness of women’s equality and to bring visibility to women’s-based charities.

I’d like to add raising awareness of female-specific health conditions to be part of that because knowledge is power! Although the next few posts are not necessarily osteopathy-specific they are health specific and during my time working and studying as an osteopath I have given out advice to patients and signposted them to more information or another healthcare professional who can help them further. This is just another example of how osteopaths know far more about the human body than skeleton structure and “fixing backs”.

The first topic in this 6 part series is cervical cancer and screening.

According to Cancer Research UK, there are 3,200 new cervical cancer cases in the UK every year. When diagnosed at its earliest stage, more than 9 in 10 (96%) women with cervical cancer will survive their disease, compared with 1 in 2 (50%) women when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage, and yet research has shown that 99.8% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are preventable. So why are we still seeing 850 death per year?

Three words: Cervical Screening Tests.

Cancer Research UK have found that about 3 million women in England have not had a cervical screening (smear) test for 3.5 years, 1 in 3 women aged 25-29 skip their test altogether and a large number of women are unaware of the importance or existence of cervical screening tests. This is starting to explain why the mortality figure doesn’t match the preventable cases figure.

What barriers to attending a cervical screening appointment do women face? Let’s break it down!

  • Embarrassment – about body shape, vulva shape, body hair, etc. The nurses who perform the screening test are paying attention to the steps necessary to do the test. They aren’t looking at your leg hair length, choice of pubic hair style, the circumference of your thighs or anything else. They have probably performed several tests that week, you’re just one more vagina to add to the list they’ve already seen and they will have seen it all.
  • Pain – everybody has a different pain threshold. What is painful for one person may be mildly uncomfortable for another. Generally speaking you can expect to feel a strange sensation when the swab is taken, perhaps some mild discomfort. A screening tests take a matter of seconds to be performed, the discomfort should be short-lived and it will be far easier if you can stay relaxed. If you are anxious about having it done the pelvic muscles are likely to be contracted so the resistance to the speculum can be stronger.
  • More important things to do/too busy – A lack of understanding of the importance may be a factor in this but this is where the cervical screening campaign comes in. Raising awareness to illustrate why 15 seconds of discomfort could be the difference between saving your life or not has never been more crucial. I’d like to draw your attention back to the statistic that 99.8% of cervical cancer cases are found to be preventable providing it’s caught early enough.
  • Bad experience/heard a horror story – This is a tough one because we always remember the bad experiences and they often outweigh the good experiences no matter what the ratio is. For every woman who had a bad experience with be 10 who had a good one. This is why it isn’t just the job of us healthcare professionals to encourage going for a screening test, but it is each woman’s responsibility to say “hey, cervical screenings aren’t that bad, my nurse at XYX GP surgery was great, make sure you book yours.” Men, you aren’t off the hook either, feel free to remind your wives/daughters/friends about the importance of attending, too!
  • “I had the HPV vaccine, I don’t need a test” – yes you do. That vaccine, although effective at decreasing the risk you will develop cervical cancer, is not a guarantee.

This post was never intended to highlight the effects of cervical cancer; the risks it poses to future fertility, the side effects of treatment for later stage cancer and what happens if that treatment is not successful are widely known. This is a very long winded way of saying: Call the GP surgery and book your test, it’s important, it could save your life and it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be.

To all the strong women – may we celebrate them, may we be them, may we raise them!

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash