I had my second cervical screening test done just after my 29th birthday and I thought nothing of it. My first screening was fine and came back with a normal result. The normal result meant that there was no presence of pre-cancerous cells in my cervix and so I assumed the same result would come three years later.
However, that wasn’t my experience. Surprisingly on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August, days after my practice nurse had taken samples from my cervix whilst talking about the new supermarket, I received a call from my local gynaecology department informing me that I had an appointment the following Monday, as abnormal precancerous cells were found in my screening. It was a courtesy call as they weren’t sure that the letter would get to me on time. I asked what the results meant, and no useful information was given. I hung up the phone and was left trying to control the urge not to fall into the vortex known as Doctor Google. Thankfully I came across Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and their website had a plethora of helpful information alongside a forum where others had shared their experiences.
Cervical screening test is the only programme that detects precancerous cells before they become malignant. The NHS advise for women who have been sexually active (this includes women of all sexual orientations and transgender, those who have been active in foreplay, oral sex or used sex toys) from the age of 25-49 to have their cervical screening test done every three years. The screening programme now incorporates tests that identify the presence of strains of the Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) that are linked to the development of cervical cancer if left untreated.
Although I was not 100% sure of what the test was looking the first time, with my second screening I became aware of the Humanpapillomavirus (HPV). According to the NHS, there are more than 100 different strains of the virus. Many types of HPV affect the mouth, throat or genital area. They’re easy to catch. You do not need to have penetrative sex and you can get HPV from: any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, vaginal, anal or oral sex and sharing sex toys. HPV has no symptoms, so you may not know if you have it.
Cervical cancer is one of the three most common cancers affecting women aged 15 to 49. However, the Public Health England (PHE) stats reveal that the number of women aged 24-49 attending their screening in 2015-2016 declined significantly, with lowest in London (63.7%) and highest in the East Midlands and North East of England (73.8%).
In 2017, PHE highlighted that cervical cancer has become the most common cancer among women under the age of 35 and by the end of 2018, uptake reached a 20 year low.
Last year PHE confirmed that around 2,600 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and around 690 women die from the disease. It is estimated that if women attended their screening regularly, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented, as roughly 6% of women will have an abnormal test result and only 4% will require further treatment.
Whilst waiting for my treatment, which was a 15 minute procedure to remove the abnormal cells called a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ), national statistics around the 20 year low in women attending their regular screening hit the headlines. A few months afterwards, I was contacted as a media volunteer to share my story and encourage others, especially those between 25-35 to have their screening done.
I have learnt a lot along the way and the importance of advocating for the sexual and reproductive health of all women without stigma, shame or taboo.
I have developed a passion around encouraging everyone to advocate for themselves in their nurse practice. You can ask for a smaller speculum and more lube to make the experience a little more comfortable. Feel free to have someone with you and you can make an appointment to discuss prior experience of sexual or genital trauma with the nurse and highlight any accessibility needs.