Thousands of women admit to skipping their smear tests, so what's with the smear fear?

The uptake for cervical smears is the lowest ever [Photo: Getty]
The uptake for cervical smears is the lowest ever [Photo: Getty]

I have a confession to make. It’s been gnawing away at me for, ooh about a year now. But despite the fact that the worry of it sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night, I’ve done nothing to get it sorted. And yet, all it would take is one phone call to my GP to book my cervical smear.

I’m certainly not alone in my smear fear. Uptake for the tests is at it’s lowest rate ever with a quarter of a million women aged 25 to 29 not attending their smear test in England last year. New research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust reveal that over half (51%) of the women surveyed reported delaying or not attending smear tests with almost one quarter (24%) admitting they have delayed for over one year and almost one in ten having never attended the test. This is in spite of the fact that 1,000 British women die of cervical cancer every year.

Reasons for the lack of uptake include embarrassment, with 27% admitting to feeling too embarrassed to attend the appointment, while almost three quarters (72%) of women confessing to feeling uncomfortable taking off their clothes in front of a stranger, lack of flexible appointments also play a role with many women reluctant to take time off work. Others are too embarrassed to tell their bosses why they need to be off and some just don’t want to use up some of their precious holiday. More worryingly, the survey also reveals a lack of awareness about the purpose of smear testing with over two thirds – 70 per cent – believing they don’t reduce a woman’s risk of cervical cancer.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Smear tests prevent 75 per cent of cervical cancers from developing yet over 220,000 of the 25-29 year olds invited for a smear test in England in the last year did not attend.”

My own excuses reasons for not going are a mixed bag of inconvenience with a side order of fear. As a freelance writer, I manage my own schedule so fitting in an appointment around work shouldn’t really be a problem. But as a mum of twins the busy-ness of school runs, after school clubs and the like provide just enough reason to put off making the call.

As for the whole scariness thing. In theory I know it will be a quick, relatively pain-less procedure that could ultimately save my life. But every time my hand hovers over my mobile to book the appointment, my mind can’t help but conjure up reasons not to.

For a start, there’s the whole awkwardness thing. When you do something every three years, you kind of forget what you’re doing and its difficult not to stop yourself getting worked up about the minor details. Which way do I lie? Do I need to take all my clothes off? Should I neaten up down there?

Then, there’s the pain. “It’ll hurt less if you relax,” they say. But when you’re lying legs akimbo with a surgical instrument pointing towards your frou frou it’s pretty difficult to feel anywhere near relaxed.

And you can’t help but read between the lines. Is she asking me that because it looks like something’s wrong? Does she ask everyone that? Does everyone bleed that much? Does that face she’s pulling mean I’ve got cancer. Gah!

Many women have the smear fear, but are they really so bad? [Photo: Getty]
Many women have the smear fear, but are they really so bad? [Photo: Getty]

But, really, if I’m brutally honest with myself though I’d never describe my previous smears as pleasant experiences, were they really that bad?

As a previous features editor for various women’s magazines I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve written about the dangers of cervical cancer. I know better than anyone the risks associated with skipping my smear. And yet, here I am doing just that.

So what needs to change? Though I’m lucky enough that I could potentially attend a work-time appointment, that certainly isn’t the case for most women. An earlier survey by Jo’s Trust found that 35% of the 2,700 surveyed would have attended their smear appointment had their surgery been open outside office hours.

So we really need to try and make that happen. Whether it’s a change in smear test appointment hours to include evenings, weekends or being able to attend a surgery near your work, or increased support from employers to be able to take time off for vital health checks, like smears, there’s little doubt this kind of change could make a massive difference to the number of women attending their smears.

As for the actual procedure itself, perhaps a degree of honesty is necessary. “Mild discomfort,” they describe it, but I’m yet to meet a woman who’d choose those words to label the experience. And perhaps its time we got ‘real’ about it. Because being prepared mentally might just take away some of that smear fear.

“Every woman is invited for a smear test from the age of 25 and this test can literally save a life,” says Robert Music. “We want to ensure smear tests are not something women are ashamed or scared of talking about, or do not think are important to attend.”

Jo’s Trust has released the new smear research at the start of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week – which runs from the 22 to 28 January – and is relaunching it’s award winning #SmearForSmear campaign to raise awareness of the importance of attending potentially life-saving smear tests.

As for me, I’ve finally had enough of ignoring that nagging little voice keeping me awake at night. So right after I’ve finished writing this I’m off to dig out my reminder from the junk drawer, face the horror head-on and book my appointment. I may not be looking forward to it, but I know I’ve got to do it. And you do too, right?

For more information about cervical smears visit Jo’s Trust.

What do you think needs to change with regards to smear tests? Let us know @YahooStyleUK

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