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Cervical Cancer Screening : Why is it important?

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    A blog to raise awareness of the importance of cervical cancer screening for all women and considering the debate as to whether the screening age should be lowered in the UK.

    By Rebecca Callard

As a woman, I dread the reminder from my GP about my next embarrassing and uncomfortable smear test being due.  But exactly how important is it to undergo cervical cancer screening regularly?

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer develops from pre-cancerous cells that are present in the lining of the cervix.  These cells can become cancerous over time.  Cervical cancer is generally a slow-growing cancer and it is not thought to be hereditary.  Cervical cancer can develop without any obvious symptoms.  It in fact generally has no symptoms at all in its very early stages.  The most common symptom when they do arise is abnormal vaginal bleeding, either outside of normal periods, after sex or after the menopause.  Other symptoms can include lower back pain, discomfort during sex and unusual vaginal discharge.  As the cancer develops it can cause more symptoms such as blood in the urine, increased frequency of urination and diarrhoea [1].

What is a smear test and why do we have them?

A smear test is a form of screening of the cervix for detecting abnormal or unhealthy cells.  It can detect pre-cancerous cells which can then be removed before they develop into cervical cancer.  The test is relatively quick and simple in which a small brush is used to take cells from the cervix for testing.  As cervical cancer can remain symptomless through its early stages, smear tests and cervical cancer screening generally can often be the only way to detect changes in those cells.

Since the cervical screening programme was introduced in 1988 in the UK, the number of incidents of cervical cancer recorded has almost halved.  It is reported by Cancer Research UK that cervical cancer screening prevents around 3,900 women from getting cancer per year, and saves over 4,000 lives a year in England alone.

Does the NHS have it right?

There has been much debate of late as to whether the minimum age for undergoing cervical screening should be lowered to 18 years.  Currently all woman who are registered with a GP aged 25-64 are automatically invited for regular smear tests every 3-5 years in order to routinely screen for cervical cancer.

However, as cervical cancer can develop in any sexually active female, and is actually reported to be most common in woman aged 15-30, it is clear to see why there are arguments being raised for the NHS to lower the age of smear tests to include females aged 18 – 25.  On the face of it, it sounds sensible to include this age group of woman to have a higher chance of catching the cancerous cells earlier and preventing development of them.  However, it is also reported that the majority of those diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 15-30 age range are aged between 25-29 and the counter argument is that our bodies are simply still developing up until the age of 25 and this could produce false-positive results of abnormal cells, leading to further potentially unnecessary investigations.

#nofeargosmear

Regardless of whether or not women are in the age range for routine screening, the most important thing we can do is to be aware of any other symptoms that may present themselves and to seek advice from our doctors if we are concerned, no matter age we are.

Ultimately smear tests are not particularly, what I call, a nice experience, but with no pain and the chances that they detect pre-cancerous cells before they develop into something more sinister and more difficult to treat, when we are called for our routine smear test, we should not put it off.

In my professional role I have had experience of medical negligence cases where there has been a late diagnosis of cervical cancer, and I have seen how this can adversely impact the treatment required and chances of survival for the woman.  Thankfully these cases are only a minority, but it highlighted to me the importance of all women taking some control over the issue and attending screening appointments offered so they at least have the opportunity of early detection and treatment, I fully support the national campaign #nofeargosmear

[1] NHS Choices website

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