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Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month: Cervical cancer and missed opportunities

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    A blog considering the importance of screening for cervical and other gynaecological cancers and whether there is ever a good reason for community doctors and nurses to refuse testing.

    By Kerstin Kubiak

I recently read an article by Adeola Olaitan, gynaecological oncologist at UCL hospital, which highlighted that women are in grave danger by delaying cervical screening.  Whilst it is vital that women attend screening, this got me thinking further about community practitioners and why they are also sometimes failing to offer screening when symptoms appear?

Views of Dr Olaitan:

Dr Olaitan feels she sees woman all too late to be able to intervene and treat their curable cancers; she said women delay coming and are dying, from sheer embarrassment. She stated: “Women need to understand that all gynaecological cancers can be cured if detected early enough. They need to be aware of the symptoms of cancer, such as abnormal bleeding from the vagina (after sex, between periods or after the menopause), abdominal pain, bloating or change in bowel habit, discomfort, itching or a lump or ulcer on the vulva. While the majority of women with these symptoms will not have cancer, it is important that the appropriate tests are carried out promptly so that those with cancer can be identified and treated”.

The Eve Appeal:

This is a London based charity who seek funds to put towards research into gynaecological cancers. They are promoting gynae cancer awareness over September 2015 and stated: “….will be highlighting key issues surrounding gynaecological cancers such as a lack of knowledge of the signs and symptoms, to the potential stigma attached to women’s cancers and misconceptions about who is at risk of them developing.”

The overriding theme is to make women feel comfortable to seek help if they have symptoms and remove the ‘taboo’ surrounding gynae cancers, which is hugely important if these cancers are to be diagnosed earlier.

What if presenting symptoms aren’t acted upon?

In 2014 a very sad case was highlighted in Northern Ireland of Sorcha Glenn, who died at only 23 years of age from cervical cancer. Sorcha had attended her GP seeking a smear test because she was worried about a strong family history of cervical cancer; she was denied the test simply because she was under the 25 year NHS age limit for testing. When she went back a year later with symptoms of bleeding and back pain a smear revealed very advanced cancer and despite treatment she lost her fight for life.

Her family have since tirelessly campaigned for any woman to be given a smear test on demand.  It is also hoped that the new HPV virus vaccine for girls will assist in reducing rates of cervical cancer in younger women.

Hope going forward:

Cervical cancer is an entirely treatable condition, if caught early enough. Women need to attend the cervical screening offered and need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease. My colleague Rebecca Callard commented on the need for woman to go for screening in her earlier blog this summer.

Doctors and other community health professionals also need to be open to younger women developing the condition and offer the simple and relatively cheap testing available if requested or if a younger patient presents with symptoms.

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