Although recent years have shown some of the lowest figures of incidence of cervical cancer in the UK, according to the Scottish Cervical Screening Programme Statistics, only 7 in 10 women attended their screenings between 2018 and 2019. However, recent efforts from celebrities and organisations this past Sexual Health Awareness Week have aimed to educate and encourage young women to get tested.
Cervical screening, otherwise known as ‘smear tests’ are not tests for cancer but tests to help prevent cancer, and can also flag up the human papilloma virus (HPV) which often causes the disease. A small swab is taken from the cervix and is tested for changes or abnormalities of cells. In most cases, tests should be taken every three years between the ages of 25 and 49, and then every 5 years until the age of 64, following NHS policy. Despite sounding fairly straight forward, the issue is actually quite complex, with screening figures particularly low among the younger generations and in the more deprived areas. This could be caused by a number of reasons including lack of proper education on the topic. Indeed, levels of screenings attended are lower in areas where the number of HVP vaccinations are also lower, indicating a general lack of awareness around the issue.
Moreover, there is, undoubtedly a stigma that exists around women’s sexual health in the UK. A recent cancer research study showed that a significant proportion of women were afraid their test results might reveal promiscuity, linking the disease to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Again, this often stems from a failure to properly educate women surrounding their sexual health as around 80% of women will be infected with HPV at some point during their lives, and it can be contracted in a number of different ways, not just through penetrative sex. While only a small percentage of these cases will develop into cervical cancer, there are still 3,200 women annually who get diagnosed in the UK, so it is important to be aware of when your screenings are due. In fact, raising awareness is key, with figures showing that exposure in the media can substantially increase the number of women attending their screenings.
In light of this, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has launched a campaign with twitter to encourage conversation about vaginal and cervical health, targeting young women in particular. The hashtag #ENDSMEARFEAR has provided a platform to ask questions, free of judgement, and share tips and helpful stories to make the process a little bit easier. The trust is also asking people on twitter to come up with an emoji for the female genitalia, to go alongside the widely used aubergine emoji. Celebrities like Maura Higgins from this year’s Love Island have gotten involved, urging her followers to end smear fear by talking more about it, and suggesting the butterfly emoji. While seemingly light-hearted, this points to the fact that for many years, both in science and the media, there has been a disproportionate focus on men’s health and the male body. There has, at times, been a lack of attention given to female body, manifesting itself in a lack of research, funding and, more simply, conversation.
A number of other celebrities and influencers have gotten involved too, including Louise Redknapp, Lolly Adefope and Zoe Sugg, who filmed the day of her smear test and a small Q&A with her nurse.
Visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust online to learn more about the campaign and all the work they do. The website also offers useful information and tips about smear tests: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/twitter-jos
Image: Abby Dana via Flickr