1 in 4 women don’t make an appointment for cervical screening when invited.
According to a survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, 27% of those surveyed who had delayed or not attended their smear test cited embarrassment as the reason.
And that is completely understandable.
It’s also pretty much the common theme in reporting on why women don’t attend. Some of the reporting can come across a bit “silly women for being embarrassed, go and get your smear test”.
I’ve even read articles that suggest women just ‘get over it’ and make an appointment.
And I’ve thought about it. And I’m not having it.
If women are embarrassed about their genitals, it’s yet another side effect of the sexist climate in which we live.
Our society shames women for how their bodies look.
How many times, as a teenage girl, did you hear teenage boys describing female genitalia in a negative way? Ridiculing, at length, the appearance, amount of hair, smell…..
It’s no wonder, then, that come the time that women are required to strip off from the waist down in front of a stranger, that they fear judgement and are, therefore, a bit embarrassed.
We’re not ‘just’ embarrassed
Then there’s the other 82% of women surveyed, who cited reasons other than embarrassment for non-attendance. And nobody is really talking about that. So, if we’re not talking about it, we’re not doing anything to help those women.
Other reasons for non-attendance included ‘just putting it off’, and worry that the procedure would be painful.
Some reporting suggests that more women would attend if they were able to get time off work, without using holiday allowance.
So, we need to educate each other more on this whole thing.
*Sweeping generalisation coming up.*
Women are not really educated about their health during their formative years. I reached 25 and had only a vague idea that HPV had something to do with cervical cancer.
Women’s sexual health is a fairly taboo subject, and not openly discussed. It certainly wasn’t when I was at school, and I’m guessing that most of what you know about your own health is knowledge you’ve gained independently over the years.
Again, some women avoid smear tests because they think (or they know) they’ll find it painful or uncomfortable.
Your experience could be transformed by the revelation that you can request a smaller speculum – not something that’s widely advertised.
A complex issue
Trauma could also be a factor in non-attendance; whether that’s sexual, medical, or any kind of assault that could leave someone feeling extra vulnerable in a smear test situation.
Some women have really poor experiences with medical professionals who have dismissed or diminished their concerns or discomfort.
I’ve never really told my own story, but I’ve personally had some good experiences with medical professionals, especially the nurses at my practice. I know, having read the stories of other women, that this is not the case for everyone.
There are other issues entangled in there to do with consent and questioning during tests.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that ethnic minority groups are less likely to attend.
AND people who have a cervix, but don’t identify as women, are pretty much overlooked when it comes to discussing factors affecting non-attendance.
So, yes, a lot could be done to make it easier for women and cervix-owners(!) to attend cervical screening. And, contrary to popular belief, women aren’t avoiding smear tests ‘just’ because they’re embarrassed.
And, if they are embarrassed, that’s not their fault, so what are we going to do about it?
For more information on cervical screening, I encourage you to visit the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website.