Could a revolution in smear tests, and cervical screening, finally be on the cards? This Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, Stylist takes a look at the medical innovations that could change the way we do smear tests forever.
Smear tests are important. We all know it, as you’ll no doubt be reminded as the annual #SmearForSmear campaign kicks off during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (20-26 January). Cervical screening prevents around three quarters of cervical cancers, saving an estimated 5,000 lives each year, but it’s no secret that it can be a pretty grim experience.
At best, smear tests are uncomfortable and undignified – something to grit your teeth and endure once every three years, for the sake of your health. But at worst they can be painful, distressing and traumatic. It’s disheartening, but not altogether surprising then, that year after year around a million people choose not to attend the cervical screening tests that they’re invited to.
The UK’s cervical screening programme was introduced in 1988, using a technique originally known as the ‘pap smear’, developed by Georgios Papanikolaou in the 1940s. This involved a speculum design pioneered (also by a man, James Marion Sims) nearly 200 years ago. Not a great deal has changed about the test since, except that more and more women have gone off the idea.
Although the ‘Jade Goody effect’ saw an extra 400,000 women screened following the 27-year-old reality star’s tragic death from cervical cancer in 2009, that increase was short-lived. By 2018 cervical screening attendance had hit a fresh 21-year low, with only 71.4% of eligible people going for their smears, while more than one in four opted out.
Previous awareness campaigns have been criticised for ‘blaming and shaming’ women, and for trivialising and dismissing their concerns about the tests as mere ‘embarrassment’. They have also come under fire for ignoring the impact of issues like sexual violence or female genital mutilation, painful pelvic conditions such as vaginismus (which causes tightening of the vaginal muscles) or endometriosis, and the need to make screening more accessible for people with physical and learning disabilities.
But could things finally be beginning to shift? For the first time since 2014, last year saw an (albeit very slight) increase in screening attendance, up to 71.9%. More significantly, 2019 also saw some breakthrough developments in the way cervical cancer is, and could be in future, screened for.