A drive to encourage women eligible for cervical screening to book and attend their appointments has been launched in England to prevent cancer deaths.
The campaign comes as an online survey of 3,003 women aged 25-64 who were eligible for cervical screening, conducted last month, revealed that 42% of respondents cited embarrassment as preventing them from attending, while 34% said they kept putting it off and 28 % said they were concerned it would be painful.
Cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells in the cervix – the neck of the womb that is connected to the vagina – grow out of control.
The disease is the second most common cancer among women under the age of 35 in England; figures from 2019 suggest that about two women in England die every day from the disease.
However, the latest figures for England from NHS Digital reveal that between April 2020 and March 2021 about 30% of women aged 25-64 who were eligible were not adequately screened.
The Department of Health and Social Care is launching an awareness campaign to increase the uptake of life-saving screening.
Supported by the NHS, the campaign Help Us Help You – Cervical Screening Saves Lives includes a film featuring the GP Dr Zoe Williams chatting to familiar faces, including the Loose Women panellist Linda Robson and the drag queen Victoria Scone – as well as discussing common questions and worries about screening.
Dr Nikki Kanani, a GP and medical director for primary care at NHS England, said cervical screening saved lives. “By screening for risk signs at an early stage, it means that any abnormal cells can be treated quickly before they potentially develop into cancer,” she said.
“We know it can feel embarrassing or feel like something that you can easily put off, but accepting your invite and getting checked could save your life. And please do speak to your GP practice about any concerns you might have – we are here to help you.”
The survey also revealed the proportion of those who had never attended cervical screening was higher among lesbian or bisexual women than those over 25 in general.
Scone said, as a queer woman, she was initially uncertain whether cervical screening was imperative.
“However, this new campaign has clarified that all women and people with a cervix, including those in the LGBTQ+ community like myself, are eligible for a screening, so I booked myself in,” she said.
The development of vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) has prevented thousands of people from developing the disease or pre-cancers.
However, the jabs are only free in England under the universal program for those who have yet to reach their 25th birthday, and the vaccines do not prevent all cases of cervical cancer: even those who have had the jabs still need to go for screening when invited.
The screening procedure takes a few minutes and involves the gentle insertion of a smooth, cylinder-shaped tool into the vagina before a soft brush is used to take a sample from the cervix. The sample is then tested for certain types of HPV and, if present, the cells are examined for abnormalities. If necessary, further investigations and treatments can then be offered to prevent the chance of cancer developing.
The Gogglebox star Scarlett Moffatt, who also took part in the film, said cervical screening may have saved her life.
“The screening detected HPV and abnormal cells linked to the development of cervical cancer, and I underwent treatment to have the cells removed,” she said. “If I hadn’t been to that appointment, I don’t know what situation I would have been in now.”