Young women are avoiding smear tests over fears their vaginas aren’t “normal”

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Susan Devaney
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Young women are failing to attend regular smear tests because they’re embarrassed about their bodies, a charity has found.  

In the UK women are encouraged to attend a smear test every two years, but women are failing to do so over fears their vagina doesn’t look or smell normal, a new study has found.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust – a UK-based charity dedicated to cervical cancer – has said that 34% of women were too embarrassed to attend a screening due to the appearance of their vulva, while 31% said they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area, and 38% would put it off out of concern of smelling “normally”.

After surveying 2,017 British women, the study found one in four women aged between 25 and 64 do not attend smear tests. With the figure rising to one in three among 25 to 29 year olds.

Lindsay was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 29, after putting off her smear test.

“I had my first ever smear at 29 because I had ignored all my previous invitations,” Lindsay said, now aged 33.

“I was too busy with a baby and a small child, working and I didn’t like the thought of having to get naked in front of anyone I didn’t know.

“I don’t want other women to have to go through what I experienced, diagnosis and treatment was awful.

“I needed a radical hysterectomy and still struggle with some side effects of treatment today.

“Please don’t put off your smear test, the alternative is so much worse.”

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Around 1,000 women die every year from cervical cancer in the UK.

“Smear tests prevent 75% 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,” said Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

“It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non-attendance.

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

“Nurses are professionals who carry out millions of tests every year, they can play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable.”

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, and yet a third (37%) of women don’t think you can reduce your risk of the disease.

“Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women,” explained Jilly Goodfellow, senior sister and nurse practitioner for colposcopy and gynaecology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust.

“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 nurse’s focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample. We do this by talking to the woman while she is fully dressed so she is aware of what is going to happen, reasons for the smear, when she will receive the result and what it will mean.

“A chaperone is always offered and if they would like a friend or partner with them this is fine too. The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”

Around 220,000 UK women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year.

The charity has released this new data in line with Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (from 22-28 January) with the campaign #SmearForSmear.

Images: iStock