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Cervical screening: 5 ways to combat smear test fear

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 07/12/2018 Karen Gordon

a person taking a selfie: Having a smear test is one of the best things women can do for their health to prevent cancer, but many people are left feeling anxious and scared about the procedure.We have 5 ways to reduce your anxiety of getting a smear test © Getty Images Having a smear test is one of the best things women can do for their health to prevent cancer, but many people are left feeling anxious and scared about the procedure.We have 5 ways to reduce your anxiety of getting a smear test Do you have the fear? From concerns that cervical screening might be painful to body embarrassment, a worryingly high number of young women don't attend their cervical screening appointment because of smear test fear. 

But here's the important part: attending your cervical screening could save your life!

We speak to Robert Music, Chief Executive Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust about combating smear test fear and the importance of attending your appointment:

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What is smear test fear?

All women in the UK receive a letter inviting them to attend a cervical screening just before they turn 25, and then every three years thereafter until they turn 64. But a survey carried out by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, revealed that 35 per cent of all women report they are too embarrassed to attend their smear test.

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There are roughly 3,200 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year and almost 900 women die from it annually. But despite regular screening offered to all women aged 25 to 64, one in four women skip their screening appointment, putting a whopping 1.28 million women at risk of undiagnosed cervical cancer.

'When the reality television star Jade Goody sadly passed away from cervical cancer in 2009 following a very high profile battle with the disease, an extra 400,000 women attended their smear test,' says Robert Music, Chief Executive Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust. 'However since then, uptake has fallen significantly, and in England it's at a worrying 19 year low.'

a chair sitting in front of a window: Woman getting smear test © Keith Brofsky - Getty Images Woman getting smear test

Why you should never miss a smear

Cervical screening saves around 5000 lives every year and could save even more if women attended their appointment. Smear tests detect abnormal cells on the cervix that, if left unmonitored or untreated, could develop into cancer.

According to Jo's Trust, cervical screening provides the best protection against cervical cancer – preventing 75 per cent of cervical cancers from developing.

'Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for their smear test every three years and women aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years,' says Music. 'You will receive a letter through the post inviting you to book your appointment when due, so make sure you are registered with a GP with your current address or you won't receive your invitation.'

Why are so many women not going?

(Representative image) Attending your cervical screening could save your life © ShutterStock (Representative image) Attending your cervical screening could save your life There are a number of reasons why women don't attend smear tests. Recent research by the charity found that over a quarter of 25-29 year olds are too embarrassed to go, while over two-thirds don't think the test reduces a woman's risk of cervical cancer.

Additionally, research of women over 50 has found many find the test more uncomfortable since being older, specifically since going through the menopause.

'Some women are embarrassed or fear it might be painful, some are put off by previous bad experiences, other women don't think it's important,' says Music. 'Not being able to get to their GP or get the time off work for an appointment is a problem for many women who work and language barriers can also play a part.'

5 ways to combat smear test fear

Cervical screening needn't be an ordeal. Music recommends the following ways to beat your smear test fear and attend your appointment.

1. Bring a friend or relative

Don't want to go alone? You can always take a friend. 'If a woman is feeling anxious beforehand, they can ask a member of their family or a friend to accompany them,' says Music. 'The practice nurse or GP will also be happy to talk through the procedure and any anxieties that they have prior to the appointment.'

(Representative image) There are roughly 3,200 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year and almost 900 women die from it annually. © Getty (Representative image) There are roughly 3,200 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year and almost 900 women die from it annually.

2. Wear something comfortable

It's natural to be embarrassed, especially if you've never been before. Just let the nurse know how you're feeling and they should be able to reassure you. 'For those embarrassed to go, it might help to wear a skirt so that they don't have to completely undress from the waist down,' suggests Music. 'Women should also rest assured that nurses do smear test all the time and have all seen it before.'

3. Speak to your nurse if you find it painful

'If you find the test painful, it's important to let the nurse know,' says Music. 'The nurse could apply some more lube to the speculum or in fact they can ask for a smaller sized speculum, which many women don't know they can do. For those who find the test painful due to vaginal dryness, a common symptom during or after the menopause, the nurse could prescribe vaginal oestrogen prior to the appointment.'

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4. Remember that cervical screening is not a test

It's a mistake to assume that if you have an abnormal cervical screening result that you have cancer. What it means is that you have changes in some of the cells in your cervix that, if not treated, might develop into cervical cancer in time.

'It's also important to remember that a smear test is not a test for cancer. Between 90-94 per cent of all screening results come back normal, with no abnormalities found,' says Music. 'For those with an abnormal results, it very rarely means cancer.'

5. Make an appointment AND stick to it

You should receive your invitation to attend for regular screening from your GP surgery. When you book an appointment, stick to it – don't forget that your smear is a priority.

'The best time (if possible) for a smear test is in the middle of your menstrual cycle, halfway between one period and the next,' says Music. 'This enables the cytologist to examine the best possible cells sample. Most GP surgeries will ask you to book the test yourself, so remember to take your menstrual cycle into account before you book your screening test.'

If you are a woman aged between 25 and 64 and you haven't been invited to attend cervical screening, contact your GP or visit NHS.UK for details.

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