On 5 March, Public Health England (PHE) launches a major new campaign in the South West, ‘Cervical Screening Saves Lives’, to increase the number of women attending their cervical screening across the region. The campaign will encourage women to respond to their cervical screening invitation letter, and if they missed their last screening, to book an appointment at their GP practice.
Around 275 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the South West each year and around 62 women die from the disease. It is estimated that if everyone attended screening regularly, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented.
New research from PHE shows that nearly all women eligible for screening (90%) would be likely to take a test that could help prevent cancer, and of those who have attended screening, nine in 10 (94%) would encourage others who are worried to attend their cervical screening.
Despite this, screening is at a 20-year low, with one in four eligible women (those aged 25 – 64) in the UK not attending their test. The screening rate for the South West is 73.7%, below the national standard of 80%.
The new PHE campaign provides practical information about how to make the test more comfortable and gives reassurance to women, who may be fearful of finding out they have cancer, that screening is not a test for cancer. Regular screening, which only takes a few minutes, can help stop cervical cancer before it starts, as the test identifies potentially harmful cells before they become cancerous and ensures women get the right treatment as soon as possible.
The PHE research shows that once women have been screened, the vast majority of women feel positive about the experience, with eight in 10 (87%) stating they are glad they went and that they were put at ease by the nurse or doctor doing the test (84%).
Rhea Crighton, 36, works as a clinical nurse specialist in the pain team at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the beginning of December 2016.
“I was 5 months pregnant when I began bleeding, developed pain when opening my bowels and suffered from pelvic and thigh pain. I initially thought the bleeding was due to an issue with the placenta and after doctors excluded this, I put the symptoms down to “one of those things” that sometimes happens in pregnancy.
“Eight weeks after giving birth I was still having symptoms and I was referred by a GP to gynaecology for further investigations.
“After several tests, I was informed that I had locally advanced stage 2b grade 2 squamous cell cervical cancer, I was not surprised as I had been told at Coloscopy that it was most certainly a malignancy. However due to my pain and symptoms, I had diagnosed myself with stage 4 and so the news of stage 2b was actually a relief as the prognosis is much better.
“The oncologist explained that the cancer I had was too advanced for surgery but one that generally responds well to treatment, which would include radiotherapy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.”
The treatment Rhea underwent meant visiting the hospital daily for over a month and severe side effects such as painful and urgent diarrhoea, fatigue and painful burring when urinating. Chemotherapy treatment caused her to experience nausea and vomiting, burning and tingling, pins and needles in her feet.
“My advice to women is to please attend cervical screening, if you are scared, anxious, have previous trauma talk to your GP/practice nurse/gynaecologist and they can help support you to find ways to have this screening test. Yes, it’s uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as chemoradiation, a hysterectomy or death.”
Dr Julie Yates, Lead Consultant for Screening and Immunisation, Public Health England – South West, said:
“We know that cervical screening rates are at a twenty year low with one in four women in the UK not attending for their cervical screening.
“About 2,500 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in England each year and in 2014 -16, we know that 275 of those diagnosed were women from the South West.
“It’s important to understand that cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer, it’s a test to check the health of the cells in the cervix. Most women’s test results show that everything is normal but for around 1 in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer and cells go back to normal on their own but, in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous.
“I want to reach out to all those women who may have not responded to their screening letters, or who may have missed a previous appointment, to arrange a screen now and stop putting it off. Regular screening means that cancer is usually detected early, which means that the outcomes for women are much better and the cancer is often much more treatable.
“There are a number of ways to make the experience of being screened more comfortable. The nurses who take the samples are trained and experienced in how to make your test comfortable so talk to them. Think about things like wearing a loose skirt or dress when you go to make the process easier – and remember you could take a friend or family member with you for moral support if you would like to and would find this helpful.
“We lead busy lives and I know from personal experience that a kind reminder from a friend or family member can make all the difference as to whether things get done or not. I want to reach out to all of you who have women in your lives to ask for your help by just doing this and by reminding any of them who might have missed or put off having a cervical screening test of the importance of having them, and to support and encourage them to make an appointment to get theirs done!”
Sarah Coleridge, a doctor working in Colposcopy and Gynaecology at Musgrove Hospital in Somerset, said: “I want to be involved in the campaign because screening women for cervical abnormalities has been enormously successful since it was introduced in 1988 and has prevented many thousands of women from developing cervical cancer. Attending for a smear test every 3-5 years (dependent upon your age) allows abnormal cells to be found, so that they can be easily treated and prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.
“Working in this area I have seen what can happen when women present with late disease once they have symptoms. I am passionate about doing everything I can to avoid anyone else going through radical treatment unnecessarily. As a woman, I know that having a smear done isn’t exactly fun, but it’s important that we look after ourselves. Sadly many women, especially younger women, aren’t having their smears done when they are invited, often because they are busy looking after everyone else. I want to encourage everyone to put their own health first – after all it’s only five minutes every few years.”
Dr Dawn Harper is supporting the campaign and comments: “Cervical screening is one of the most important things women can do to protect themselves from the risk of cervical cancer. Screening can stop cancer before it starts and saves thousands of lives every year.
“Some women are nervous or embarrassed about the test and put off having it done. While it’s not the most enjoyable experience most women say it wasn’t as bad as expected and were glad they did it. The tests are usually done at your GP surgery by female nurses who are trained to make women feel more comfortable and talk them through the process. I cannot stress how important it is not to ignore your screening letter – it’s a five minute test that could be lifesaving.”
The campaign is also being supported by leading charities across England including Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Activity includes new advertising on TV and other channels, together with the cascade of information through GP surgeries and pharmacies.
For further information about cervical screening, please search ‘NHS Cervical Screening’ or visit www.nhs.uk/cervicalscreening.