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Insight

As cervical cancer awareness weeks ends, Rebecca Drew looks at barriers to eliminating the disease

Rebecca Drew
05/02/2020

Every year in the UK, roughly 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are reported and, despite around 99.8 per cent of these cases being preventable, something stops women – particularly young women - from taking the disease seriously.

Following the high-profile death of Jade Goody from the disease in 2009, 500,000 extra women attending cervical screenings but, very worrying, 11 years later, uptake as dwindled to a 20-year low.
 
Ongoing dedicated research means the potential to eliminate cervical cancer continues to grow, specifically in the form of improved screening and injections for girls aged 12-13 and the public information campaigns around the initiative.
 
The new screening method focuses on searching for signs of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) rather than first testing for cell changes and then testing for HPV. This new investigation means that any sign of the HPV infection should be spotted earlier before the cancer goes on to develop. Research shows that the new method has identified far more cases of pre-cancerous lesions than previously.
 
Which should all be good news – because, as the NHS national clinical director Professor Peter Johnson said in the press recently, the new screening 'will save lives'.
 
But despite the medical advances working towards eliminating cervical cancer and targeting initiatives such as the Cervical Cancer Prevention Week this January, led by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the worrying truth is that there has been a large increase in women diagnosed with cervical cancer in their 20s, likely due to the low up take of screening.
 
Cancer UK estimates that among 25 to 29-year-olds there has been a 54 per cent rise in cervical cancer rates since 2004. Most presumably are too young to even remember Jade Goody.
 
In March 2019, Public Health England launched the 'Cervical Screening Saves Lives' Campaign' urging young women to attend their cervical screening, or smear tests, while at the same time attempting to break the taboo around the embarrassment and discomfort associated with the screening process.
 
In a report by the Independent, the most highly-cited reason for not scheduling smear tests, was that of misinformation. The narrative around smear tests continues to be that they are universally a painful and embarrassing experience, which continues to put women off.
 
As a team, we unfortunately see the effects of delayed or misdiagnosis of cervical cancer in some of our cases – which makes us all the more conscious of the need to encourage women to take up free NHS screening and to join the campaign to increase awareness of the disease and the ways to combat it.