Third Of Women Over 50 Delaying Smear Tests And Risking Cervical Cancer, Charity Warns

'It has never been more crucial that we act.'

Women over the age of 50 are risking their health by not having smear tests, a charity has warned.

A survey conducted by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Gransnet found that one in three (33%) women of this age have delayed or not attended this potentially life-saving test.

Of these women, the average delay was of 26 months, while one in 10 (10%) delayed having a smear test for over five years.

The survey, released to mark Cervical Screening Awareness Week, also found that one in three (32%) women over 50 do not think smear tests are part of the healthy upkeep of a woman’s body and almost one in four (22%) do not think they are important to have regularly.

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According to the charity, cervical screening provides the best protection against cervical cancer, a disease that can be prevented.

The latest statistics show incidences of cervical cancer in the UK have risen from eight diagnoses every day to nine each day, meaning 3,207 women a year now face a diagnosis.

Adding to concern, experts at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust estimate that incidences of cervical cancer are set to rocket if current uptake of cervical screening remains the same.

By 2040 incidences will have increased by 16% among 60-64 year olds and 85% among 70-74 year olds, they said.

A 100% increase in mortality among 60-64 year olds is also a very real threat rising to a massive 117% if screening uptake continues to decline and falls by another 5%.

Further findings from the survey of more than 1,000 women aged over 50 found:

  • Almost half (46%) do not agree or do not know the Human papillomavirus (HPV) - the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer - is common
  • One in five (21%) do not agree or do not know that regular cervical screening reduces the risk of cervical cancer
  • Of those who have delayed screening, 32% find it embarrassing, 25% find it hard to book an appointment at a convenient time, 20% have had a previous bad experience and 19% find it painful since being older (16% since the menopause in particular)

When asked what would encourage attendance:

  • 21% said more flexible GP opening hours
  • 38% said being sent an appointment time with their cervical screening invitation
  • 31% wanted more information relevant to their age
  • 23% said more information about the risks of not attending
  • Almost one in four (23%) who had delayed attending said the opportunity to HPV self test

Robert Music, chief executive at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said: "Cervical cancer is a preventable disease so it is extremely worrying that diagnoses have risen.

"Women aged 50 to 64 are of particular concern as they are more likely to receive an advanced stage diagnosis, with 49% of diagnoses stage two or later, which means more invasive treatment, poorer health outcomes and increased risk of loss of life."

He added that not attending cervical screening is the biggest risk factor to developing cervical cancer, yet attendance declines with age and among women aged 60-64 uptake is now at an 18-year low at just 72.4%.

"Relevance, accessibility and flexibility are significant barriers to cervical screening among this group and coupled with our modelling work, which shows terrifying long term increases in incidence and mortality among this age group, it has never been more crucial that we act," he said.

“For women who are post-menopause, screening can be particularly uncomfortable, and our research shows discomfort (57%), mild (26%) or even severe pain (10%) are common screening experiences."

According to Music, further research into HPV self-sampling tests is "urgently needed" as it could help overcome some of these barriers for this age group.

"The 2015 Cancer Strategy for England highlights the need to increase screening attendance and I am afraid that if we do not tackle this with a sense of urgency we are only exacerbating the ticking time bomb of increased incidence," he said.

Jane Ellison, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health said: “Cervical screening currently saves 4,500 lives a year, but it could save more if everyone took the opportunity to be screened. Even as we get older, it is important that we spot any abnormalities early so we have a better chance of preventing cervical cancer.

“Cervical Screening Awareness Week will be vital in raising awareness - screening is our best protection against cervical cancer. I encourage all women, whatever their age, to make the important decision to attend cervical screening when invited.”

Lara Crisp, editor at Gransnet, added: “We are an ageing population and it is essential that women over 50 feel able to make informed decisions about their own health.

"It is extremely concerning to see the rising risk of cervical cancer in this age group and the lack of knowledge that exists about screening which is potentially putting lives at risk.

"We hope this research encourages more conversations and increased awareness about the role of cervical screening in preventing cancer. We also join Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust in urging policy makers to make cervical screening as accessible as possible for this age group."

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