Body shame responsible for young women not attending smear tests

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

A cancer charity is concerned that body image issues, including perception of what is ‘normal’, could be putting lives in danger.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is releasing its new data at the start of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week to launch its smear test awareness campaign #SmearForSmear.

According to its data young women are embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape (35 per cent), the appearance of their vulva (34 per cent) and concerns over smelling ‘normally’ (38 per cent).

In a new survey of 25-35 year old women, a third admitted they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area.

A third (36 per cent) of the 2,017 women surveyed said embarrassment has caused them to delay attending, furthermore high numbers did not prioritise the potentially life-saving test as one in six (16 per cent) would rather miss their smear test than a gym class and one in seven (14 per cent) a waxing appointment.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, yet among the 25-35 year old women questioned, almost two thirds (61 per cent) were unaware of this, despite being in the most at risk age group.

Worryingly high numbers do not understand the role of smear tests in preventing cervical cancer as a third (37 per cent) do not think you can reduce the risk of the disease. Despite low screening attendance among the age group, almost every woman (94 per cent) said they would have a free test to prevent cancer if available.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Smear tests prevent 75 per cent of cervical cancers so it is a big worry so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending.

“It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non attendance. Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test.

“Nurses are professionals who carry out millions of tests every year, they play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable.”

Lindsay was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 29 and she said: “I had my first ever smear at 29 because I had ignored all my previous invitations.

“I was too busy with a baby and a small child, working and I didn’t like the thought of having to get naked in front of anyone I didn’t know.

“I don’t want other women to have to go through what I experienced, diagnosis and treatment was awful.

“I needed a radical hysterectomy and still struggle with some side effects of treatment today. Please don’t put off your smear test, the alternative is so much worse.”

Further findings from the survey include 20 per cent of women have delayed a smear test because they would prefer not to know if something was wrong while over one in six (17 per cent) think smear tests are important, but are unsure why, rising to a third (35 per cent) in those who have never attended

Among women who have delayed or not attended, a quarter (26 per cent) find it too hard to make an appointment and over a third (35 per cent) wouldn’t go if they had to take time off work.

As many as 30 per cent of women who have never attended a smear test are unsure where to go for a test

Among women who have delayed or not attended, half (50 per cent) are embarrassed to attend because of weight or body shape, over half (54 per cent) about having a ‘normal’ smell, and half (48 per cent) because they don’t like how their vulva looks or don’t think it looks ‘normal’.

Jilly Goodfellow, senior sister and nurse practitioner for colposcopy and gynaecology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women, but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women.

“We know that if a woman does not have an acceptable experience this may put her off having smears in the future and the biggest risk of developing cervical cancer is not having a smear.

“The nurse’s focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample.

“We do this by talking to the woman while she is fully dressed so she is aware of what is going to happen, reasons for the smear, when she will receive the result and what it will mean.

“A chaperone is always offered and if they would like a friend or partner with them this is fine too. The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”

Wrexham GP and Leader medical columnist Dr Peter Saul agreed younger people need to take the risk of cervical cancer more seriously.

“Cervical cancer is one of those cancers that has gone out of the headlines recently,” says Dr Saul.

“A lot of the women I see are far more concerned about breast cancer and because cervical cancer is in many ways an ‘invisible’ disease, it is seen as somehow less important.

“Perhaps there is an embarrassment factor, but people seem more willing to talk about breast cancer and we have seen high profile examples such as Angelina Jolie, who underwent a preventive double mastectomy.

“With cervical cancer, I strongly believe there is a case of it being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and it is a shame because if you are screened there is a very good chance you will be treated successfully.”

l Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from January 22 to 28 and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is launching its smear test awareness campaign #SmearForSmear www.jostrust.org.uk/
smearforsmear. The campaign asks people to share lipstick smeared selfies or a short film with the message that smear tests prevent cervical cancer. It could be the reminder or encouragement someone needs. It could save a life. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (www.jostrust.org.uk) is the UK’s only dedicated charity offering support and information to women of all ages and their loved ones affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. The National Helpline is on 0808 802 8000.

Email:

jamie.bowman@nwn.co.uk

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