Embarrassment makes women avoid smear tests, charity says

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Media caption,

What happens during a smear test?

Young women are avoiding getting smear tests because they are embarrassed by the look and smell of their pubic areas, a survey suggests.

The charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust surveyed 2,017 British women.

A third said embarrassment caused them to delay getting a smear test, which can prevent 75% of cervical cancers.

The charity said cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, yet almost two-thirds of those surveyed weren't aware they're most at risk.

A total of 220,000 British women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year.

'Naive and uneducated'

Lauren Bennie said she put off having her smear test until the age of 30 because she was "naive, embarrassed and uneducated about the female body".

"So many silly things stopped me from going for my smear test," she said.

"I worried about the nurse being able to take one look at my bits and have some magic skill to be able to determine the number of sexual partners I'd had. I thought a lot about what kind of underwear and clothes to wear."

While at university in Dundee, she thought she might know the medical students who could be asked in to observe.

Image source, Lauren Bennie
Image caption,
Lauren Bennie said she put off having her smear test until the age of 30

"I didn't know it at the time, but the embarrassment I felt around going for a smear was actually doing my body damage," said the 33-year-old Glaswegian.

When she did eventually get a test she was told she needed further examination.

"It was when I was faced with words such as dyskaryosis (abnormal cells), high-grade and colposcopy that I realised the severity of the situation."

Hospital results later confirmed she had severely abnormal cells that were pre-cancerous on her cervix.

"It was terrifying," she said. "I felt angry rather than sad that I had left it so long to go for a smear test."

Lauren's story isn't unique.

'Waxed or shaved'

The survey found young women are embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape (35%), the appearance of their vulva (34%) and concerns over smell (38%).

A third said they wouldn't go if they hadn't waxed or shaved their bikini area.

About 15% also said they would miss their smear tests for a gym class or a waxing appointment.

Robert Music, of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said: "Please don't let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test.

"Nurses are professionals who carry out millions of tests every year, they can play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable."

Of the five million women in the UK invited to cervical screening each year, one in four do not attend.

This rises to one in three among women aged 25 to 29 and is particularly bad in some geographic areas, such as Glasgow.

Mr Music said: "Every area has different demographics, pressures and geography," with the charity finding a third of local healthcare providers and councils haven't made any action in the past year to increase uptake of smear tests.

"There is already so much great work being done across the UK, however, if this is not amplified and prioritised, we will continue to see a decline in cervical screening coverage and ultimately lives lost."

Smear test 'saved my life'

Lauren's smear test allowed her to catch the pre-cancerous cells before they developed into cancer.

She said: "I had to have surgery to have a piece of my cervix removed.

"Luckily I received the all-clear but if I had delayed my smear test any longer it could have been much worse.

"My smear test could have saved my life, please don't put yours off."