Embarrassment and fear are probably the thing putting you off going, but as Claire Saunders, 38, discovered, the consequences of skipping your smear test can be dire.
You think you’re invincible when you’re young. Even after witnessing the Jade Goody effect – the Big Brother star, 27, died 10 years ago this March from cervical cancer, prompting nearly 500,000 extra women to turn up for a smear test – I never thought the disease would strike me. That mixture of naivety, ignorance and nervousness meant I repeatedly ignored the letters asking me to attend for my smear test – sticking them in the kitchen drawer, with an intention to sort it out later. But if I had just made that appointment, my cancer could have been caught so much earlier. Instead, it ended up taking my fertility.
I was one of the million women a year in the UK who now don’t go for their smear. Attendance rates for cervical screenings are at a 21-year low, and new research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has found that over half of young women say they feel scared and vulnerable about going for the test. I was exactly the same. You hear horror stories about it hurting so, whenever the letters came, I’d just ignore them. I did worry about not going but I put it off, reasoning I’d do it when I had more time. I never did.
The embarrassment factor was there for me, too. Even though I’d had strangers examining me intimately when I gave birth to my daughters, I still felt intimidated, which seems ridiculous now. I know now the nurse has seen it all before. Two years ago, aged 36, I realised something wasn’t right. I’d been getting a pain in my lower abdomen, spotting when I wasn’t due my period, and pain and bleeding after sex. I knew it wasn’t normal. My GP referred me to The Holly Private Hospital in Essex. I needed to be seen urgently, and within two weeks I was there for my first ever smear test.