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Ignore the tabloids: abnormal smear test results are not a “cancer scare”

Scarlett Moffatt’s “cancer scare” has gone viral – but her story has been lost amid scare-mongering headlines. 

On 20 September, Scarlett Moffatt took to Instagram Stories with a mission: to remind women of the importance of regular smear tests.

“I went for my smear, something came back. They detected something,” she said, explaining that her results had come back as ‘abnormal’ and that she had been asked to undergo extra tests as a result.

“Lots of people have to go for biopsies and again I worked myself up about it, but I still went,” Moffatt continued. “It was four minutes of discomfort for something that was a little bit uncomfortable, but I went because could save my life. The sooner they pick it up, it’s easier to manage.”

Her message was simple enough: smear tests are absolutely not something to be afraid of. That was the article which we ran here at Stylist, and that’s the one which we were proud to share on our social feeds.

Many of the tabloids, though, decided to take a very different approach.

“Scarlett Moffatt reveals cancer scare after she gets abnormal smear test results,” screamed one headline.

“Scarlett Moffatt emotionally reveals she has suffered a cancer scare and is awaiting biopsy results,” insisted another.

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Those two little words – ‘cancer scare’ – appeared in countless other headlines, as frenzied journalists did their best to stir up a tragedy from something very ordinary. Because, as we’ve reassured our readers time and time again, an abnormal test result does not mean a woman has or will get cancer.

As Imogen Pinnell, Health Information Manager at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, exclusively tells Stylist: “Being told you have an abnormal result can be scary, so it’s important to understand what it means – cervical cell changes are not cancer. Instead, by identifying cells that might need monitoring or treating, they can be prevented from ever developing into cancer.

“Around 220,000 women get an abnormal result each year so it is actually quite common, but we know the fear of cancer actually stops some women from going for cervical screening.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Scarlett Moffatt attends the Ru Paul's Drag Race UK Launch on September 17, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Scarlett Moffatt, on smear tests: “I went because it could save my life. The sooner they pick it up, it’s easier to manage.”

More than 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK and nearly 900 don’t survive. Worse still? As underlined in Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Twitter’s #EndSmearFear campaign, attendance of smear tests (despite being the most effective protection against the disease) is falling: one in three young women are not choosing to take the test when invited.

And, when you consider the fact that the majority of women who delay or don’t go for cervical screening have said this is due to the fact that they feel scared (71%) and vulnerable (75%) at the thought of going, the language we use around smear tests is incredibly, incredibly important.

Reflecting on those fearmongering tabloid headlines, Pinnell says: “We are really pleased to see Scarlett sharing her experience of cervical screening and receiving an abnormal result. [But] at a time when screening attendance in the UK is falling, it’s really important that we don’t add to fear and anxiety around the test or results.

“Cervical cancer can often be prevented, so let’s start talking about cervical screening being a test that can stop cancer from ever beginning, instead of being a test for cancer.”

Exactly. With this in mind, let’s stop talking about Moffatt’s “cancer scare”. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that she shared her own experiences in a bid to encourage conversation around smear tests. To address the misconceptions around abnormal results. To break down some of the uncertainty and fear about smear tests, not spark more.

Because, by focusing on her actual message, we might be able to help those who fear the smear feel more supported and empowered.

And, more vitally? We may inspire someone to book a test if they choose to do so, too.

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What actually happens during a smear test? A doctor answers our questions

If you have received an invitation for a smear test with your local GP and haven’t yet booked one, it’s highly recommended that you do so as soon as possible. Worries and concerns are normal, but they shouldn’t prevent you from attending a screening.

Still feeling anxious? We put the most common questions about smear tests to a doctor – and her answers were truly reassuring. You can check them out here.

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