ONE million women have missed their smear tests due to the coronavirus lockdown, experts have estimated.
Campaigners warn that the long-term impact of cancelled or postponed screening could result in a rise in cervical cancer cases.
Only a "handful" of screening appointments have been available in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, according to Jo's Cancer Trust.
While services in England are decided at a local level resulting in a "postcode lottery" for many patients.
Kate Sanger, from the charity, says that while this is "far from ideal", it's necessary to protect women and NHS staff from coronavirus.
However, she warns that that could have a knock-on effect further down the line.
She told HuffPost UK: “We are anticipating there to be an increase in people with cell changes and potentially some additional cancers as a result of the pausing."
Around five million women a year are invited for cervical screening in the UK.
But Kate says that due to the "disjointed approach" across England during lockdown, around one million women have been affected.
She also raised concerns that even after cervical cancer screenings are allowed to resume, the system "won't be up and running quickly".
The NHS will be dealing with a backlog of "all manner of health conditions" once lockdown is lifted and social distancing may also limit the number of patients that can be seen in a day.
Karen Hobbs, from the Eve Appeal, says that women should be reassured that HPV – the virus that causes abnormal cells in most cases – is slow-growing.
She told HuffPost UK: “For the most part, it’s medically safe to postpone an appointment a little bit. Routine screening is usually a check of a healthy cervix."
For the most part, it’s medically safe to postpone an appointment a little bit. Routine screening is usually a check of a healthy cervix
But lockdown delays will make the risk higher for women who are already overdue their screening, she warned.
There are also fears that fewer women will want to take part in the scheme as they may be worried about undergoing "a very intimate test" following months of keeping their distance from people.
Women may also have difficulty in getting to an appointment, have childcare issues or have had past trauma that makes the procedure more daunting.
But she added: “It would be very rare and unlikely [to develop cancer during lockdown], but of course it’s a risk and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a risk."
Catch it early
Cervical cancer is one of the more deadly forms of the disease if it's left untreated.
Catch it at the earliest stage – stage 1 – and you have the highest chance of surviving it. But get diagnosed at stage 4, and you've only got a 5 per cent chance of surviving five years or longer.
That's why it's absolutely crucial that you know what changes to look out for and get them tested ASAP.
According to Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK.
It's the most common form of the disease in women aged 35 and under.
Over the past decade – despite the deaths of celebs like Jade Goody – the number of women attending screenings has dropped to the lowest level since records began in 1995, with nearly a third of women in the UK risking their lives by skipping their smear test.
That’s why last year Fabulous partnered with cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust to launch #CheersForSmears, a campaign aiming to ensure women across the UK attend their screenings, no matter what.
With around 3,200 women in the UK now being diagnosed with the disease every year – a number that is set to rise by around 40 per cent within 20 years – and one in three dying from it, it’s clear we’re facing a cervical cancer time bomb.
So, what early signs do you need to look out for?
Not all women diagnosed with cervical cancer have symptoms, which is why it’s really important to attend cervical screening (smear tests) when invited.
"But, whatever your age, it’s equally important to be aware of cervical cancer symptoms," Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust told The Sun.
Early signs can include:
1. Abnormal bleeding (during or after sex, between periods and also post-menopause)period
The most common and earliest sign of cervical cancer tends to be irregular bleeding.
It happens when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix.
It's an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods. There's no age limit to developing cervical cancer.
2. Unusual vaginal discharge
Everyone's discharge is different, so it's a case of knowing what is normal for you.
If you find that the colour, smell and consistency has changed, then that's something you really need to have checked out.
When cancer lacks oxygen, it can cause an infection which leads to strange smelling discharge.
3. Discomfort or pain during sex
Pain during sex can be a sign of a number of different issues, but one is cervical cancer.
Because the disease often comes with no symptoms, pain during intercourse is one of the key indicators. It can be a sign that the cancer is spreading to surrounding tissues.
4. Lower back pain
It could be down to you straining something in the gym, or it could be a warning sign that something's wrong with your reproductive organs.
Persistent pain – just one off twinges – in the lower back, pelvis or appendix can be a symptom of cervical cancer.
5. Unintended weight loss
While effortless weight loss might sound like the answer to many of our prayers, it's never a good sign if it happens seemingly without cause.
A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss tend to be signs that the body isn't working properly – it's trying to conserve energy. If you notice that you're not eating as you normally do, go to your GP.
Cervical cancer myths busted
There's a lot of misinformation about the disease out there and that's putting loads of us at risk.
Here, Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, busts open a few of the most common myths.
1. HPV is rare: False
HPV is actually really common! In fact, 4 out of 5 people (80 per cent) will have the virus at some point in their lives.
In many cases, our immune systems will get rid of HPV without us ever knowing we had it.
That’s why removing stigma around the virus is so important.
2. Only promiscuous people get HPV: False
You can get HPV the first time you have sexual contact, so it doesn’t matter how many people you’ve had sex with.
The virus can also lie dormant in your body for years – even decades – so you could still have the virus if you’ve been with the same person for a long time.
3. Smear tests are a test for cervical cancer: False
A smear test aims to find changes (abnormalities) to cells in the cervix at an early stage, before they develop into cervical cancer.
So it actually prevents 75 per cent of cervical cancers from ever developing.
4. Smear tests should hurt: False
A smear test should not hurt. For most people, smear tests may be slightly uncomfortable but are not painful.
But we know it’s not always an easy test, so if you do find it painful or have worries, there are things that can help.
Speak to your nurse about ways to make the smear test better for you.
5. Only young people get cervical cancer: False
Cervical cancer affects women of all ages, which is why it’s important to attend smear tests when you are invited – attending helps reduce your risk of developing it.
6. If you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you don’t need to attend a smear test: False
If you have had the HPV vaccine, you are protected against at least 70 per cent of cervical cancers.
However, you are not fully protected against all cervical cancers, so going for smear tests when invited is still important.
So, if you're over 25 then make sure that you're up to do with your smear tests.
If you're under 25, try to ensure that you're totally aware of what's going on with your body and seek urgent medical attention if anything from the list above starts to happen.
Remember, doctors have seen and heard it all before – there's absolutely no need to be embarrassed when talking about your gynaecological health.
In fact, doing so might well save your life.
As the disease progresses, it can also result in:
- increased need to pee
- blood in pee
- bleeding from the bottom
- lower limb swelling
What to do if you do experience any of these symptoms
If you experience any of these (do not wait for all of them to appear, just one is enough!), then make an appointment to talk to your GP immediately.
It doesn't matter if you've had a recent smear test or not – or if you're under 25 and haven't been offered one yet. Although it's rare, cervical cancer can strike earlier.
"Remember, cervical cancer is rare and all of these symptoms are often caused by something other than cancer," Imogen says.
"But, if you have any symptoms, it is important to get checked by your GP straight away."
Often, women don't have any symptoms early on and that's why it's so absolutely crucial that you go for a regular smear.
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