Saving the Smear: Why Young Women Avoid Free Cervical Screening
Women. We’re surfing the new wave of feminism, campaigning and protesting the patriarchy, taking our mothers, sisters, and daughters with us. We’re becoming CEO’s at a younger age than the generation before us, we’re shattering the glass ceiling and refusing to be silenced. We’re conquering the world, but we’re still not taking care of the one thing that can save us the most. Our cervical smear tests.
In Scotland, 73.4% of eligible women (those aged between 25-64) attended their cervical smear test, according to an NHS report in March 2017. The national target for cervical screening, set by the UK Government, is 80%. The most popular age group declining the invitation for a free test are women between 25-29 years old. The very age bracket I fall into, the box I check when I fill out any sort of formal documentation.
Tired of merely pondering why Scotland is falling beneath the national target and why women under 30 years-old account for the majority of non-attendees, I decided to talk about it. I decided to talk to women about it.
Lorna Dhami, Practice Nurse & Manager at Easterhouse Health Centre and 1 of 24 Queen’s Nurses in Scotland, is currently undertaking a community project as part of her QN training and is proposing a new out-of-hours testing clinic in the area.
Passionate and determined, Lorna asks; “Why do we take cervical smears in a clinical setting? To me, it’s too hidden. You see the breast screening vans, why not see a cervical screening van? Would people come to be screened if I offered tests in a different environment?”
“Making the test more out there and obvious. It is a very invasive procedure, talk to the patient, show them what you do, and what you use to make them feel more comfortable.”
I completely agree. There seems to be a lot less awareness of ‘cervical services’ so to speak, than any other health & wellbeing facilities within the NHS. As for the environment? I can’t say I enjoy the medical setting and insipid atmosphere that goes along with the experience. I’m not asking for lavender and vanilla scented candles, or Tibetan healing sounds playing in the background, but a less clinical approach may prove to be more relaxing for patients. After all, we aren’t ashamed of visiting our beauty therapist once every six weeks, whom we graciously pay to tear away the hair from our follicles.
Demi Connelly, 25 from Glasgow, is just one of many young women in Scotland who has never attended a screening, Demi said “I’ve ignored all my letters. Partly because they’re an inconvenience to go to and I’ve heard they’re horrible. Doctor’s surgeries make me anxious and feel very formal. I find doctors quite intimidating, I always feel like they’re going to think I’m stupid. I know it’s really irresponsible of me not to have went yet.”
But, it isn’t just the physical environment that is a deterrent for some women. A history of sexual assault, abuse or trauma can be another factor in non-attendance, as Lorna again discussed; “1 in 4 women have suffered sexual abuse before they are 16. So about 20 out of 100 women I see may have been sexually assaulted and I would never know. Using words that don’t trigger a state of anxiety is important.”
As I scrolled through the Twitter feed of Jo’s Trust, the UK’s only cervical cancer charity, I found numerous re-tweets of young women under 30 posting about attending their smear tests and encouraging others to do the same. Recent campaigns such as #SmearForSmear and #StopTheFearSmear have failed to gain traction, despite celebrity support. But, should it really take a few celebrities with a lipstick smeared selfie to get us to listen up, sit back and put our feet in the stirrups? No, I don’t think so. We don’t need hashtags, we need educated.
I don’t judge the women not attending their cervical screenings. We are a generation of women continuing to fight for choice. I choose to go, let my dignity leave me at the threshold of the doctor’s office and do what needs to be done.
It may be five minutes of discomfort and inelegance, but those five minutes may very well save your life.