19th – 24th June 2023 is Cervical Screening Awareness Week! The week is organised by Jo’s Trust and its aim is to highlight the importance of regular cervical screening for women’s health.
In January 2023, the NHS reported that a third of women who were offered a cervical screening appointment, did not take up the offer. This amounted to around 4.6 million women not taking up their latest test.
Cervical screening helps to prevent cervical cancer by using a test to check for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) which is found in over 99% of all cervical cancers and which may cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These abnormal cells can, over time, turn into cancer if left untreated.
Cervical screening is offered to all women between the ages of 25 and 64. It is offered every 3-5 years, or more frequently if HPV or cell changes are detected, and patients should receive a letter from their GP practice inviting them to make an appointment.
HPV can remain undetected for years before later developing into abnormal cells which can lead to cancer. It is therefore important to attend frequent cervical screening, when offered, even if you have had a negative screening test in the past.
It’s important to note however that having HPV does not mean someone has, or will definitely develop, cervical cancer. In fact, it is a common virus that most people have at some point in their life without knowing it and it usually goes away on its own. By undertaking regular cervical screening, it provides the opportunity to identify any cell changes early which can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35. Around 2,700 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in England each year. Figures provided by the NHS estimate that the screening programme can prevent up to 75% of instances of cervical cancer, saving around 5,000 lives every year.
Why, therefore, are up to a third of women not taking up the chance to have a screening test?
It is thought that in the past there has been a concerning amount of misunderstanding surrounding cervical screening and HPV, with women often saying they felt shame, embarrassment or fear surrounding the whole experience. Some women may have had a negative screening in the past and assume that will cover them for life. The NHS and organisations such as Jo’s Trust, are trying to bust the myths about cervical screening in an attempt to encourage everyone to undertake screening on a frequent and regular basis.
The test itself involves taking a small sample of cells from the cervix and looking for HPV. It generally lasts no longer than 5 minutes and is performed at your GP practice, often by a Nurse Practitioner. The NHS is also trialing self-screening for cervical cancer at home which, depending on the outcome of the trial, could be rolled out nationally in the coming years.
The NHS now offers the HPV vaccination to all children aged 12 and 13 at school in Year 8, and up to 25 years old through GP practices. However, even if you have received the vaccination, it is still important to attend regular cervical screening, when offered, because the HPV vaccine does not protect against all strains of HPV.
This week, as part of Cervical Screening Awareness Week, there will be information stands at GP surgeries, workplaces and sport centres, fundraising events and a social media campaign urging women to tell their stories relating to cervical cancer and screening so plenty of ways to get informed and get involved!
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