Written by Amy Beecham
Cervical screenings are the most recent aspect of women’s healthcare to have been impacted by the pandemic, data suggests.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a large impact on women’s health. From delays in contraception services to long gynaecology waiting lists due to lack of funding, with the impact being described by the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine as ‘a pandemic within a pandemic’.
Indeed, new data from healthcare provider Online Doctor suggests that Covid-19 restrictions meant nearly half of women delayed or didn’t have a smear test.
Earlier this year, government figures also revealed that 30% of those eligible for screening do not attend their appointment, with 34% sayingthey “kept putting it off”.
1 in 142 UK women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime, but 99.8% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are preventable if caught early enough by routine cervical screenings.
“Cervical cancer can develop at any time so getting to know your body and what to look for is vital, as the earlier a cancer is found, the easier it is to treat and the higher the chance of successful treatment,” explains Dr John Butler, medical director of the Lady Garden Foundation charity.
“While common symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge or discomfort or pain during sex, it is really important to get anything unusual for you that persists checked out by a GP.”
Dr Butler explains that a smear test is the first part of cervical screening and checks for abnormal cells in the cervix. “Finding these cells can help to prevent cervical cancer,” he says. “There are around 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer in the UK every year. Screening offers the greatest protection against cervical cancer, with smear tests preventing 75% of cervical cancers.”
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV and around 40 directly affect the genitals. However, only around 13 of these strains are considered high-risk for cancer, some strains can cause genital warts but the rest should be cleared by your body without causing complications.
The NHS cervical screening programme currently offers testing to women and people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64.
“If you are a trans-man or a non-binary person and have a cervix, you should be screened too. However, if you are registered with your GP as male, you may not automatically be sent an invitation. Instead, you can speak to your GP about booking an appointment,” Dr Butler continues.
But it isn’t just the pandemic causing women to skip or postpone their cervical screenings.
Research from charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that a third of young women avoid getting smear tests because they are embarrassed by the look and smell of their pubic areas.
Many women are also scared of the discomfort or pain of a smear test. “Some women may find the procedure a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing, but for most it’s not painful,” Dr Vanessa Mackay, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) previously told Stylist.
“If a woman does experience pain, she should tell the doctor or nurse who may be able to reduce her discomfort. Being tense also makes the test more difficult to carry out, so women are advised to try to relax as much as possible by taking slow, deep breaths.”
If you have any more questions about smear tests, or would like to do some further research, you can head to the NHS information page here or browse the facts compiled by British charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust here.
For more information about cervical cancer, including the symptoms and treatment, head to the NHS information page here.
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