The number of young women diagnosed with cervical cancer is gradually on the rise as many choose to skip their smear tests. In January figures indicated that over one million failed to attend screenings in the previous year.
Worryingly this trend looks to be arising in the younger generation, with the most no-shows falling in the 25-29 age bracket, says Grazia – and it appears this lack of attendance is starting to make its mark.
28-year-old Stephanie Barnes, resident of Brighton, had her first smear test aged 25 and found the experience so painful she’s shunned it since
Over the past 10-years, cases of the disease in women aged 25 to 29 have risen by 59.2 per cent.
So why are women still opting to avoid a test that could likely save their lives? FEMAIL chatted with four women regarding the actual reasons they are skipping their smear tests.
Sarah Arnold, 26, from Northern Ireland says she has the ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude
26-year-old Sarah Arnold, who lives in Northern Ireland, (pictured during a charity fun run) says that her OCD makes her fearful of medical environments
There’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t hear about another girl in her early twenties demanding the age that women are called in for a smear test to be lowered.
I live in a district where girls are asked to come in for a smear from 20 years old. I’ve received tons of letters and haven’t acted upon this.
This is after hearing about the low cervical cancer survival rates because of late diagnosis. I retweet cervical cancer awareness groups on Twitter. Yet, I’ve never been for a smear.
When the letters arrive at my home, I open them, hardly glance them and toss them straight into the bin. I don’t give them a second thought.
High profile cases for example Jade Goody have not forced me to think about it. I have a ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude. I know the symptoms, and I believe I would at that point go and visit a GP.
I hate hospitals, doctors’ surgeries or anything related to illness. I have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for a very long time. With my OCD, I have a fear of contamination.
My anxiety rises up if I am in situations where I am exposed to somebody who’s ill and GP surgeries aren’t exactly full of healthy people.
I have been trying to shrug off this fear because I had to get vaccinations for my travels last year to Southeast Asia. This meant many trips to the surgery. I need to get a booster jab and I haven’t made an appointment for this.
My OCD means that, to stop feeling the awful anxiety I get around contamination, I stay away from the situation completely. Clearly, in this situation, avoidance may be a life or death situation.
I don’t fear having a painful procedure. I have no problems. I know this is different for a lot of other people. Talking to my peers, going for a smear is a ‘hassle’.
Working a 40-hour week, and having to take time off to visit a GP isn’t ideal, specially if you are otherwise healthy.
Almost all of my friends have been for a smear. They see it as one of those things you simply need to do. I also know people who pay privately to have a smear test anually, rather than waiting every three years. I do know I need to face my demons and go to my GP – it could save my life.
Stephanie Barnes, 28, from Brighton, is scared after a painful first experience
I went for my first smear test at the age of 25 and had heard a assortment of stories ahead of the procedure. Everything from ‘it’s absolutely disgusting and so intrusive’ to ‘It’s fine, it’s really quick.’
As a young buck I was surely anxious about it as I had no idea if mine would be a positive or negative experience.
I went into it with a positive feeling and the nurse was absolutely lovely and reassured me that it wouldn’t hurt – sadly, it did.
She had to use added equipment to ‘open me up’ and scraped quite powerfully against my cervix. I can actually feel it right now and I still squirm a little at the thought of it. She apologised and had to try again as it wasn’t the ‘right place’.
In spite of finding her first smear terribly uncomfortable, Stephanie has booked her second one for September in a hope she’ll be able to tame her fears
Nonetheless, she was in fact lovely and had a normal ‘chat’ with me. I could tell she was trying to distract me but sometimes it’s a little hard to relax.
Later, it hurt and I could kinda feel a scraping whilst walking home. I chose to just ignore it and was happy that I had done it, after all I was safeguarding my health and it’s such a vital thing for young women to do.
I received a letter in the post about eight months back now saying that I was due another smear and to be honest I kept putting it off.
I just kept telling myself that it was all fine and nothing was wrong, then incidentally Jade Goody appeared on my Facebook feed following Mother’s Day and I just felt so terrible.
It was such a foolish thing for me to put on the back burner as it’s so vital to get this done, What’s a few moments of discomfort compared to… well, death?
So, I in fact booked my appointment for my second smear in September and I am actually looking forward to it. I intend to go into it with a more ‘kick-ass positive, this is helping me’ attitude.
Mother-of-two Kate Allan, 39, from Northamptonshire, has avoided hospitals after a traumatic medical history
I’ve never gone for a smear test. I’ve been receiving the invitation letters since I was 18 and I’m now 39 so I have no excuse. I know that I am playing with my health.
It should be easy enough. Yes there is the loss of pride and discomfort but then you get to put your clothes back on free from the likelihood of a horrible death.
I know when I got the letter for the first time it said something about being sexually active and I thought, well, I’m not, and tossed the letter into the bin. Later, a friend was telling me she was pleased her smear had come through fine.
I mumbled something, not ready to confess I’d not had it done. Time enough to worry about it later in life, I thought. The thing is that I’m still not bothered when I know I should be.
39-year-old Kate Allan, from Northamptonshire, spent a major part of her childhood in and out of hospitals so has since avoided them
Actually, I am semi-allergic to the medical establishment. I’m a fan of modern medicine, without it I’d been dead. But I spent so much time in hospital as a kid, I don’t want to be reminded of it all. As a preschooler the local children’s ward was my second home.
I have as many memories of being there as not. I was quite happy about it at the time. I had my favourite nurses, toys and other ‘regulars': children also in frequently or long term. The loved the bed which was next to a window where you could look out in the mornings and early evenings and see rabbits hopping around.
Later, when I turned nine, I prayed I wouldn’t die as I had to have open heart surgery to rectify a congenital heart defect. That experience changed my life. I became just happy to be alive. The pleasure in uncomplicated things: the sunrise; the first snowdrop; a blackbird hopping on the lawn.
When I became an adult I luckily dodged hospitals until I became pregnant. I was forthwith referred as a high-risk mother to the Chelsea and Westminster in London.
Owing to some confusion on my notes I was told I might have a 50 per cent chance of maternal death.
I was harried off for tests and the error was found. I had only a five per cent chance of maternal death: still considered too high.
Pregnancy could also have longer term health implications. But I couldn’t be ruled by statistics.
I gave birth to two lovely boys, now aged five and two. It was a huge gamble and I took it.
I get letters for flu jabs every winter. I should have one. I never have. It’s just one more needle for something that doesn’t look essential.
It is the same with smear tests. I expect to die, finally, of my congenital heart condition. I don’t want another disease even on the outskirts of my radar to worry about.
The only people who truly understand how I feel are others who have been very ill as kids.
It’s a happy-go-lucky approach to life that we use partly as a self-preservation mechanism, I think. So yes I’m carefree but it’s a conscious decision I’ve taken. I will gamble, as to me the alternative is a life lived in fear.
Kate (pictured as a kid) suffered complications with her heart when she was younger and finds hospitals very torturing
An anonymous woman reveals how childhood abuse has prevented her from making regular check-ups
I’m usually really organised regarding having all sorts of tests. I have regular dental check ups and other appointments. But I frequently get that worrying feeling that I’m not up to date with my smear tests.
Prior to my last smear, I’d explained to the nurse that I fear them as they can be so triggering. I have endometriosis and before I was eventually diagnosed, I’d had nearly a year’s worth of internal exams at different surgeries and hospitals.
I would often be sent home from the doctor’s or consultant bleeding and in pain. The entire experience was very triggering, calling to mind the unwanted sexual experiences from my childhood and teens.
I knew that the doctors had been trying to help me discern what was going on but looking back, they knew nothing about my traumatic history. And at that time, I couldn’t articulate what was going on for me at all.
At the time of my last smear test, the nurse was really kind (I sent her a thank you card the next day) and said she’d used the most delicate equipment possible.
But she couldn’t find my cervix and the entire thing took ages. I did plenty of calming breathing and mentally did my best to coax my cervix out of hiding (in my imagination, it had leaped all the way up to my right shoulder, hiding out) but it didn’t work well enough.
After nearly 20 minutes, the nurse said she hoped she’d got enough of a sample and I fled, thinking: ‘Phew, that’s it for another few years.’ Sadly, the results came back inconclusive. I emailed the nurse explaining my fear.
Again she was very sweet but, as smear tests have to be booked around menstrual cycle dates, I couldn’t do my usual (like with the dentist) and just get a date in the diary, psyche myself up and do it.
The vagina is a sensitive portion of the body. Mine went through a lot when I was too young to understand consent and didn’t feel safe enough to say no. As an adult, I want my vagina to be a site for pleasure, no more pain (don’t get me started on the idea of waxing down there).
Yet, I value having access to great healthcare and want to stay healthy and well for as long as possible. A good friend of mine died of cervical cancer around ten years back.
While I know she was too lovely to have judged me for my current predicament, I really feel like I should force myself almost in her honour. She was so young (29) and took such good care of herself.
And yet my not forcing myself is, in a way, therapeutic: honouring my body and my feelings. I’ve heard about an organisation that specifically help women like me face their smear tests (and maybe many who’ve been through way worse than me) and I will (at some point) look them up and see if I can as I know I should. But it’s tough.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF CERVICAL CANCER?
Symptoms usually don’t appear until the disease is in its advanced stages. And they are not always obvious.
In majority cases, abnormal bleeding is the initial sign. It commonly occurs after sex though any unusual bleeding should be investigated.
Other symptoms are: pain in and around the vagina during sex, an unpleasant-smelling discharge and pain when passing urine.
If the cancer has spread the most likely symptoms are: constipation, blood in the urine, loss of bladder control, bone pain and swelling in the legs and kidneys.
The most recent incidence rates for cervical cancer indicate from 2010 to 2011 rates escalated by nine per cent across the UK. Among those aged 20 to 24 cases dropped from 45 to 43, but in the age group 25 to 29 rates soared 15 per cent from 306 to 353
By 2025 experts forecast there will be a two-thirds cut back in cervical cancer rates thanks to the HPV vaccine, which was launched on the NHS in 2008