Due to the massive strain that the pandemic has placed on our health services, 600,000 women have missed their smear test in England in April and May. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have paused screenings completely, cancelling 96,500 tests that would have taken place under normal circumstances. 1.5 million appointments are missed ordinarily, and with many people tentative to take a trip to the hospital, there are fears that even more will miss their appointments. More education and awareness of why they are so important is needed.
The main reason that smear tests are commonly missed is due to the stigma around discussing female health. Conversations surrounding such issues are seen as embarrassing or as a taboo, when in fact they are incredibly valuable and could frankly save lives or prevent problems occurring. It is vital that we use our voices, and follow charities such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, to educate ourselves to start conversations with fellow females.
There needs to be a greater effort to improve PSHE and sex education lessons
Smears are also perceived as scary or uncomfortable – both physically and mentally. In reality, it is a quick 5-15-minute procedure which is vital for detecting early signs of HPV and cervical cancer. It is estimated that 83% of cervical cancer cases would be prevented if we all went to our smear test appointments. Some experience mild discomfort, but this is not a strong enough reason to avoid going as it is so quick, offers you peace of mind and could save your life. In the UK, it is recommended that we attend a test every three years from the age of 25 to 49, and every five years for the over 50s.
When the issues being tested can be life-threatening, it is bewildering that we are not educated on the importance of smear testing from a young age in school. Undoubtedly, there needs to be a greater effort to improve PSHE and sex education lessons in schools. If issues, like the avoidance of smear tests, were taught, it would hopefully allow for wider conversations in the rest of society and encourage women to talk about their experiences more, so the stigma could ease, and people feel more comfortable to attend appointments. As a result, we might even see a reduction in cases of HPV and cervical cancer.
If we have our doubts about whether or not it could be a symptom, we must seek medical advice
Since we have been alarmed of the dangers of overwhelming the NHS, many people are nervous about going to see health professionals in case they catch coronavirus and are doubting whether their concerns are serious enough. In the long run, this avoidance could have a detrimental effect on our health as symptoms may not be spotted in their early stages. This is especially important for breast cancer and cervical cancer, among many other female-related health issues.
The government must reiterate that yes, we should avoid seeking medical help for non-serious issues, such as those that can be treated with paracetamol and other off-the-counter medicines. However, it is also essential to establish that changes in our body, like our breasts or vagina, can be a subtle sign of a severe health issue. So, if we have our doubts about whether or not it could be a symptom, we must seek medical advice.
I encourage you to follow their social media accounts for daily reminders
At the moment, charities are promoting the potential symptoms of cervical cancer and other female health issues via their social media platforms. I encourage you to follow their social media accounts for daily reminders on what could be a sign. They are presented in an approachable manner and are not intended to scare us. Instead, they aim simply to inform. So, we can use the information if a symptom did arise or to utilise conversations with our female friends well.
So, if you notice even the slightest change in your breasts or vagina, I would urge that you contact a health professional and discuss the options as a telephone consultation or video call may be possible if you are nervous about going to a Doctor’s surgery. We are constantly being reminded that the NHS is open so please don’t feel like your problems are insignificant.