Those of us who are blessed with a uterus, feel somewhat hindered by the plethora of female-oriented tasks that are thrown our way, whether it be having to manage painful and uncomfortable menstruation or suffering severely in menopause, it sometimes feels as if being a woman is more a burden than a joy. Blowing out the 25 candles on your birthday cake is a call for celebration, but for some it’s also a pit of fear as the dreaded letter drops through from the local general practitioner. It’s time for your first routine smear test. And it seems the majority of women will throw the letter to the waste bin in embarrassment or dread at having to undergo this procedure.
New statistics show that the number of women going for cervical screening has dropped to a new low, so much so that even Prime Minister Theresa May opened up about her own experiences in order to highlight the importance of attending a routine check. While cervical screening can’t figuratively tell whether an individual has cancer, it is a method in which any abnormal cells in the cervix can be highlighted to potentially be monitored or to go on and receive more treatment. As we all know, the earlier a person is diagnosed, the better the outcome, so much so that after TV star Jade Goody sadly passed away from cervical cancer at just 27, there were calls to drop the routine age to 21 and a significant impact on numbers of young women who attended or requested the opportunity to undergo cervical screening.
There could be many reasons as to why someone would dismiss their smear test. For most, it seems to be the feeling of humiliation and anxiety over such an intimate procedure, or the fear of the eventual outcome and that maybe they would rather live in denial. Yet, a woman is more than happy to oblige routine tests in this personal area when dealing with pregnancy and childbirth, why would they not consider cervical screening as one and the same? For some it’s a lack of awareness over why having a routine test is vital to ensuring their reproductive health, or the link between the smear tests and sexual health and lifestyle. Similarly, women may not return to regular appointments because of prior experiences that are associated with a negative outcome or their cultural beliefs if they might be given bad news as a result.
What’s clear to see is that there is no straightforward solution to encourage more women to overcome the psychological barriers which then impact them on attending cervical screening. But what should be examined is how much more significant the psychological impact could be if the individual goes on to developing cervical complications and having delayed the opportunity for treatment because of refusing to attend their regular smear test. Some are suggested to have had feelings of guilt, regret and frustration at themselves, and shame that their illness has been brought on because of their denial. Dealing with cancer in itself is a big enough mountain to climb, adding to it with such psychological burden is even more so of a challenge.
From personal experience, I delayed my first routine test by nearly a year because of embarrassment, fear, and anxiety. Luckily for me when I eventually bit the bullet, I had a wonderful nurse who was empathetic and understanding, the procedure was over in minutes and there was only minimal discomfort. To receive a letter explaining that everything was healthy and normal was above and beyond a relief. But knowing it could have gone the other way, at least anything negative would be in my control and hopefully ahead of anything too sinister. Be sure that when your letter drops through, you don’t ignore it and be prepared that you can make it through unscathed.
If you have been affected by cervical cancer or wish to know more about how you can help raise awareness of cervical screening, please visit Jo’s Trust for more information.
Katie Bagshawe is doing her MSc Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, after completing a BSc (Hons) Applied Computing from the University of Cumbria. Her research interest lies in the psychological and psychosocial impact of interstitial lung diseases as well as the neuropathology of symptoms induced from progressive lung inflammation. Katie mostly writes articles relating to health psychology.