Cervical Cancer: One-Third of Women Too Embarrassed To Get Smear Tests

Women are too embarrassed to attend potentially life-saving cervical screenings, a report by a cancer charity showed Monday. According to a survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, 35 percent of young women did not attend smear tests because they were embarrassed by their body shape.

Thirty-four percent of the 2,017 women aged 25-35 surveyed by the British charity said they were embarrassed by the appearance of their vulva, while 38 percent were worried they might not smell normal. One third said they would not attend an appointment if they hadn’t shaved or waxed their pubic hair.

1_22_Pap smear Cells acquired during a routine pap smear. Ed Uthman/Flickr

Almost two thirds of the women surveyed did not realize they were in the highest risk group—in the U.K. cervical cancer is the most common form of the disease among under 35s.

Chief executive of the charity Robert Music said in a statement: “Smear tests prevent 75 percent of cervical cancers so it is a big worry that so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending. It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to nonattendance.”

The American Cancer Society predicts about 13,000 new invasive cervical cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2018. More than 4,000 women in the U.S. will likely die from the disease this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls cervical cancer a “highly preventable disease” because of the availability of screening and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. When found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable.

Doctors recommend regular smear tests, often called Pap smears, for women over 21. The tests look for changes to the cells on the cervix—the narrow passage forming the base of the uterus. Pap smears can detect precancerous and cancerous cells. The HPV test is also used to screen for cervical cancer, mostly in women over 30.

Most cervical cancer is caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted infection present in some 79 million Americans. Most HPV disappears on its own, but sometimes it can cause health problems, such as genital warts and certain cancers. The CDC recommends that all boys and girls aged 11 or 12 should get vaccinated against HPV.

Health professionals screen millions of women every year using cervical smear tests. “They can play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable,” Jo's Trust's Music said.

Jilly Goodfellow, a senior nurse at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, U.K., told the charity, “We know that if a woman does not have an acceptable experience this may put her off having smears in the future and the biggest risk of developing cervical cancer is not having a smear. The [health professional's] focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample.”

Music added: “Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test.”