Confusion and fear over cervical cancer and cervical screening is putting lives at unnecessary risk

Almost a third (31%) of women do not know what causes cervical cancer and over half (54%) fail to link the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)* to its development, according to new research from Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust.

Furthermore only 16% of women recognise non-attendance of cervical screening as a risk factor. With this lack of understanding about the causes of cervical cancer and the importance of prevention programmes such as cervical screening, the UK's only dedicated cervical cancer charity is calling for more to be done if the UK is to reverse the continual decline in cervical screening uptake. The research, commissioned by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust to support the new Put Yourself In the Picture Campaign and launched during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (Jan 19-25), targeted the first and last age groups eligible for the NHS cervical screening programme, both of which show worrying trends - higher numbers diagnosed with the disease and lower uptake of cervical screening.

Amongst 25-29 year olds 1 in 3 [1] do not take up their invitation and with cervical cancer being the most common cancer for women under 35, incidence in this age range is at its second highest since 1996 [2]. For women aged 60-64 who receive their final invitation, over a quarter (27.3%) currently fail to attend screening - the lowest uptake for over 16 years [3]. This is particularly worrying as the most recent figures show cervical cancer incidence for this age group has increased by 29% in a year - the highest incidence level for a decade [4].

When it comes to understanding the purpose of a cervical screening test, many got this wrong. Of those surveyed 13.7% believed that screening was a test that checked the health of the womb, whilst one in 10 women aged 25-29 thought it was a test for sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore one in five of those surveyed believed cervical cancer to be hereditary. The data also revealed the fears of young women and why they were delaying their first screening. Over a quarter (26%) worried the procedure would be painful and embarrassing and 1 in 10 worried about what the results would say. For those aged 60-64 and potentially facing their last screening, reasons for delaying the test included having a previous bad experience (16.4%) and experiencing pain since going through the menopause (14.7%).

Robert Music, Chief Executive for Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust said: "The study shows a clear need to educate women on the causes of cervical cancer and the purpose of cervical screening. Currently just under 3,000 UK women are diagnosed each year and if those who are delaying their screening continue to misunderstand the disease and how it can be prevented, then we are concerned that screening uptake will continue to fall and incidence will start to rise. Already we are seeing an increase in incidence for older women and we are very worried that the number of diagnoses amongst women in their late twenties will also go up." "Annually 1 in 5 women in the UK will fail to attend cervical screening" said Robert. "Our data revealed that on average young women delay screening for 15 months and 60-64 year olds delay for an average of 33 months.

Furthermore one in 10 in the last screening cohort cited they had not attended a screening for over 10 years. With regular screening paramount for detecting abnormal cells that could turn into cancer, even delaying for a few months could be putting lives at risk." Robert continues: "This study has revealed several barriers to attending screening which need to be addressed by educating women with targeted campaigns. For example we know that for those living in areas of deprivation the incidence of cervical cancer is three times as high as those in the least deprived areas [5] and our study also revealed that those from a D/E socio-economic group were 35% more likely to delay a screening then those from the highest demographic. Because of this a focus on our policy work will be calling for increased government investment in targeted programmes. "But ultimately our message to women who are overdue their next screening would be to seek support and advice if they have any concerns and make it a priority to attend."

The study also showed differences in attitudes to screening between those who delay and those who attend when invited. For those who delayed 37% did not see screening as important to have regularly compared to 20% who have not delayed. Similarly 46% who had delayed did not see it as part of the healthy upkeep of a woman's body compared to 34% of those who didn't delay. Interestingly of the 60-64 year olds 35% of delayers did not view it as a necessary health test for all women compared with 19% of non-delayers. In order to raise awareness and encourage all women to attend regular screening Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust has launched a new campaign called Put Yourself In The Picture which aims to put women in the picture on why they need to attend cervical screening.

The campaign is supported by Kirsty-Leigh Porter, who plays Leela Lomax in Hollyoaks, and British actress Sara Stewart, famous for roles in Fresh Meat, Holby City and Batman Begins. To get involved visit to pledge to attend cervical screening and check out the campaign which will see a new Put Yourself In The Picture app coming soon.

Further results from the research:

Almost 39% of those questioned found cervical screening embarrassing,

1 in 10 didn't feel comfortable with the medical practitioner performing the procedure and with smoking as a risk factor for developing cervical cancer, only 16% identified it as such

1 in 10 thought cervical screening was a test to detect Ovarian cancer

14.7% of 60-64 year old women had found cervical screening painful since going through the menopause

34.2% of 60-64 year olds and 49% of 25-29 year olds simply kept putting off their cervical screening invitation.

Furthermore 1 in 5 forgot all about it.

When asked why they delayed 1 in 10 women questioned in the survey said they felt uncomfortable with the test being carried out at a GP's surgery.

51.5% from the survey said they would rather have a female practitioner carry out the procedure

44% of all questioned do not openly discuss cervical screening.

1. Health and Social Care Information Centre
2. Data supplied by Cancer Research UK
3. Health and Social Care Information Centre, Cervical Screening Programme report, England 2012-13
4. Data supplied by Cancer Research UK
5. Cancer Research UK


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Last revised: 23 January 2016
Next review: 23 January 2019