LIFESTYLE
22/01/2018 02:01 SAST | Updated 22/01/2018 13:06 SAST

Women Avoiding Smear Tests Over Fears Their Vaginas Aren’t ‘Normal’

One woman who put off her smear test needed a hysterectomy aged 29.

Young women are avoiding smear tests because they’re embarrassed about the look or smell of their vaginas, a new survey has found.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said 34% of women surveyed were too embarrassed to attend cervical screening because of the appearance of their vulva, while 31% admitted they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area and 38% avoided going over concerns about their vagina’s smell.

Of the 2,017 women surveyed, more than one in three said embarrassment has caused them to delay attending a smear test.

For more information on what to expect when attending your first smear test, check out our Q&A with health experts. 

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Lindsay was diagnosed with cervical cancer and forced to have a hysterectomy at the age of 29, after putting off her smear test. 

The now 33-year-old said she put it off out of general embarrassment around the whole test.

“I don’t want other women to have to go through what I experienced, diagnosis and treatment was awful. I needed a radical hysterectomy and still struggle with some side effects of treatment today,” she explained.

“Please don’t put off your smear test, the alternative is so much worse.”

Across the UK, one in four eligible women (aged 25-64) do not take up their smear test invitation. This figure rises to one in three 25-29 year-olds.

The charity is releasing its new data at the start of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week to launch its smear test awareness campaign #SmearForSmear. 

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, yet statistics show many young women are completely oblivious to this.

Worryingly high numbers do not understand the role of smear tests in preventing cervical cancer, as one third (37%) do not think you can reduce your risk of the disease.

Despite low screening attendance among the age group, almost every woman (94%) said they would have a free test to prevent cancer if available.

Cervical screening is crucial. Marianne, from near Belfast, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in July 2017 after putting off her smear test.

“I was experiencing heavy abnormal bleeding and thought it was my pill,” she said. “I was also a year overdue for my smear, life gets in the way and you end up putting your health to one side.”

In the end, Marianne ended up going for her smear with a friend. The results which came back showed she had cancer.

“When I got results I wasn’t completely surprised,” she said. “Diagnosis was awful, you just sit there and you’re numb. I was diagnosed on 18 July 2017 with stage 1b1 cervical cancer. I had a radical hysterectomy and lymph node removal.

“You have to be positive and I’ve tried throughout. It could have been a lot worse. My friends and family were fantastic.”

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Marianne was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017.

Responding to the latest survey, Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers so it is a big worry that so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending.

“It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non-attendance.

“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 play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable.”

Jilly Goodfellow, senior sister and nurse practitioner at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said nurses have a part to play in ensuring the cervical screening experience doesn’t deter women from re-attending. 

“Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women,” she said.

“We know that if a woman does not have an acceptable experience this may put her off having smears in the future and the biggest risk of developing cervical cancer is not having a smear.

“The nurse’s focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample. We do this by talking to the woman while she is fully dressed so she is aware of what is going to happen, reasons for the smear, when she will receive the result and what it will mean.

“A chaperone is always offered and if they would like a friend or partner with them this is fine too.

“The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”