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Young Women Are Avoiding Cancer Smear Tests Because They’re Ashamed of Their Bodies

More than a third of young women in the UK are skipping potentially life-saving smear tests because they’re embarrassed about their bodies, according to a new survey.

Concerns about their weight and body shape, or how their vaginas look or smell, is putting young women off going for the tests — which can prevent 75% of cervical cancers. 

The charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust released the results of the survey , which involved 2,017 women in the UK aged between 25 and 35, on Monday. 

It’s worrying because young women’s concerns about their body image, including the perception of what is “normal,” could be putting their lives in dangers. 

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“Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test,” said Robert Music, CEO of the Trust.

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

Of the women surveyed, 35% said embarrassment about their weight or body shape caused them to delay; 34% blamed worries about the appearance of their vulva; and 38% were worried about how their pubic area smells. 

While 31% said they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area, one in seven (14%) said they would prioritise a waxing appointment over their smear test. 

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What’s more, 35% of those who had delayed or not attended said they wouldn’t go if they had to take time off work, and 25% of all the women asked didn’t think they were at risk of cancer because they led healthy lifestyles. 

One woman, Lindsay, shared her story with the charity , after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 29 at the first smear test she attended — after “ignoring” all her previous invitations. 

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

Lindsay needed a radical hysterectomy and she still struggles with some side effects of the treatment, according to the Trust.

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

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Women between 25 and 49 are invited to a smear test every three years in the UK, while those aged 49 to 64 are invited every five years. 

But a quarter of all those women don't take up the invitation — and that rises to one in three among 25 to 29 year olds. In some areas of the UK, it’s as many as one in every two women.

It’s vital that young women attend their smear tests, however, because cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer among women under 35.  

Some 220,000 British women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities, and 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, every year. 890 women will lose their lives.

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“Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women,” said Jilly Goodfellow, senior sister and nurse practitioner for colposcopy and gynaecology at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. 

“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,” she added.

She said this is done by talking to the woman while she is still fully dressed, so she knows what’s going to happen, why the test is important, when she will get the result, and what it will mean. Chaperones are also an option, or she can bring a friend or partner as well. 

“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,” she said. 

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Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust also raised concerns that not enough was being done by local authorities to get more women to attend their cervical screenings. 

A second report , also released on Monday, found that 32% of local authorities in England haven’t upped their efforts to improve access and attendance of screenings in the past year. Many said there reason for having taken no action was that they don’t have a responsibility to do so. 

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