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Today marks the beginning of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 2021 and the #SmearForSmear campaign. This annual campaign aims to raise awareness and educate people on how to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.
According to the most recent statistics provided by Cancer Research UK, 99.8% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are preventable. There are approximately 3,200 new cervical cancer cases in the UK every year, which averages to over 8 new cases per day. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is likely that there are a number of people who are overdue their cervical screening tests because appointments have been delayed or cancelled.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer can present with a wide range of symptoms but these are not always obvious. Symptoms may include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain or discomfort during sex or lower back and pelvic pain. More non-specific symptoms may also occur such as constipation or urinary symptoms.
Of course, cervical cancer may present with no symptoms at all, until the disease has progressed. This highlights the importance of regular cervical cancer screening tests.
What is a cervical screening test?
A cervical screening test, also known as a smear test, checks the health of your cervix. This is not performed as a test for cancer, but helps to prevent cancer. It is a test to pick up abnormal cervical cells that if left untreated, may develop into cancer.
What happens during a cervical screening test?
During your cervical screening appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix. The sample is checked for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) which can cause changes to the cells in your cervix. If these types of HPV are not found, you do not need any further tests.
If these types of HPV are detected, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix. These changes can then be treated before they turn into cervical cancer. Not everyone who is diagnosed with cervical cancer will display symptoms, which is why it is important to ensure that you undergo routine cervical screening tests.
Am I entitled to a cervical screening test?
All people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 should be invited by letter for a cervical screening test. Current NHS guidance encourages all people with a cervix aged 25 to 49 to get screened for cervical cancer every three years, and all those aged 50 to 64 every five years. If you are over 65 and have never had a cervical screening, you can ask your GP for a test.
Minimum age for cervical screening tests
There has been increased coverage focusing on the diagnosis of cervical cancer in people under the age of 25. I was moved by the story of Emma Swain, a 23-year-old woman, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and sadly passed away in October 2014. It has been reported that Emma was told 15 times by her GP that she did not need a smear test, despite demonstrating some of the common symptoms of cervical cancer.
The Government reviewed the guideline age for receiving a cervical screening test in 2019. Based on research evidence from the UK National Screening Committee, the decision was made to continue offering cervical screening from age 25 onwards. The evidence shows that a large number of women below the age of 25 received very little benefit from being screened and treated. Often, younger women undergo natural and harmless changes in the cervix that screening could identify as cervical abnormalities. In most cases, these abnormalities resolve themselves without any need for intervention. Further research has shown if women undergo unnecessary treatment at a young age, this can have adverse effects on later pregnancies with babies possibly being born prematurely.
In light of the decision to maintain the minimum age of 25 for cervical screening tests in the UK, it is important to seek medical advice if you are displaying any of the symptoms. We commonly see cases involving delayed or misdiagnosed cervical cancer which makes us keen to raise awareness of the disease and encourage participation in cervical cancer screening tests.
For more information on getting involved in the #SmearForSmear campaign during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, please visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
Lara Francioni is a Paralegal in the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury department. Lara assists with aspects of medical negligence and personal injury claims, including birth injury, brain injury, fatal accidents and road traffic accident claims.
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