'No guarantee' - doctor urges HPV vaccinated women to attend screenings
- Credit: Getty/Big C
Campaigners and doctors are calling on women - including those who have had HPV vaccinations - not to skip cervical screenings, as smear test figures fall short of the target.
Laura Woods, 35, from Oulton Broad, knew something wasn’t right before she’d even had her smear test in 2016.
She had experienced back pain, unexplained tiredness, irregular bleeding and poor overall health before being diagnosed with stage two cervical cancer in March 2016.
Now, after 25 sessions of radiotherapy, five sessions of chemotherapy and four sessions of brachytherapy, Mrs Woods is celebrating four years of being cancer-free.
“It was a tough time," she said. "I also found it especially hard as I didn’t have very many people I could relate to because of my age. People think of cancer and they think of older people but, of course, it affects everyone."
After her treatment, the 35-year-old began volunteering in one of The Big C's retail shops before changing her career and becoming deputy centre manager and counseling coordinator for them.
The Norfolk-based charity supports those living with cancer.
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She said: “I am keen to break age barriers and promote Big C to younger people. I think it’s crucial to emphasise the importance of support.
"Most of all I would encourage all women to attend their cervical screening appointment when invited. This is still very important even if you have received the HPV vaccine."
Girls and boys aged between 12 and 13 are offered the HPV vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme.
The HPV vaccine helps protect against cancers caused by HPV, including cervical cancer, some mouth and throat cancers and some cancers of the anal and genital areas.
But the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, which means it is important that all women - vaccinated or not - also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.
Doctor Melanie Pascale, director of operations at Big C, said: “We would urge all women who receive an invitation for cervical screening to attend the appointment.
"Although feeling apprehensive when attending a medical examination is natural for many people, it is a relatively simple procedure, which only takes a few minutes and ultimately it could save your life.
"It is also important for younger women who have received the HPV vaccine to still attend their cervical screening. The vaccine prevents seven out of 10 cervical cancers, but it is not a guarantee against the disease and the screening will identify any abnormal cell changes."
New figures from Public Health England released on April 13 show that 76.4pc of eligible women between the age of 50 and 64 in England had cervical screenings, a figure which has remained similar since 2018/19.
However, the number of women aged between 25 and 49 is 6pc lower, with only 70.9pc of the eligible population being screened, which is up from 70.2pc in 2018/19.
Figures have historically been lower in the under 50s and this year only six Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in the country exceeded the 80pc "acceptable" threshold, one of these being north Norfolk (81pc).
The rest of the county's figures for people under 50 were below the threshold, with Norwich coming in with the lowest percentage of eligible women screened in Norfolk and Suffolk at 70pc.
As for the over 50s, every CCG in Norfolk and Suffolk came in below the acceptable threshold, with west Norfolk seeing the lowest amount of women in the county getting screened (75.1pc).
Only six counties in the UK matched or exceeded the acceptable threshold and none of these were in East Anglia.
But the figures also showed that Norfolk had the best rates in the country for getting cervical screening results back to patients within 14 days of being tested.
Doctor Suzanne Phillips, a Macmillan GP who works with NHS Norfolk and Waveney CCG, said: “It’s vitally important that all women who are eligible for cervical screening take up this opportunity.
"Screening identifies changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer if left untreated, and given that in many cases there aren’t any symptoms in the early stages, it’s vitally important that women are screened.
"If you’ve received an invitation for a cervical screening, please don’t delay and book an appointment with your GP practice nurse for this very simple and quick test.”
Since the screening programme was introduced in the 1970s the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by around 7pc each year.
Now, around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year with the condition mainly affecting sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.
For these 3,000 women, hundreds of which are right here in Norfolk, there is plenty of support available if they need it.
The Big C has continued to offer support to women and men through the coronavirus pandemic via cancer support groups on Zoom, online counselling sessions, virtual drop-ins and welfare packs to support those shielding and isolating.
Mrs Woods accessed services at The Big C during her treatment and said it was a "great respite".
She said: “I’d often pop in for a cup of tea. I also had massages there and would just drop-in at the centre after my radiotherapy sessions.
"I wanted to get out of the house and return to normality, but I just wasn’t getting the support I needed at work."
Another constant support has been her now-husband, Andy, who she met three weeks before she was diagnosed.
"It was such early days between us and I didn’t expect him to stay with me so I gave him the chance to opt-out after I found out I had cancer.
"We had literally only just met - I didn’t expect him to stay with me, but he did. In fact he stuck by me through thick and thin.
"Despite these challenging times, our relationship really blossomed. He’s been my rock.”
This year Mr and Mrs Woods will celebrate their third wedding anniversary.
Screening during the pandemic
Three months into the coronavirus pandemic the CCG put out a plea to women in Norfolk and Waveney, urging them to attend routine screening appointments.
The plea came after women began missing or delaying responding to screening invites during the pandemic.
Dr Linda Hunter, cancer lead for the Norfolk and Waveney Health and Care Partnership, said: “Due to the coronavirus pandemic some women may have missed or will have delayed responding to screening invites.
“We are working closely with all our partners to swiftly and safely re-introduce women to cervical screening and to ensure there is capacity and systems in place to be able to respond to the increased demand.
“We know that one in four women don’t take up their smear invitations. If you are one of these then I really urge you to reconsider as this could be a life-saver.”
- For more information, advice and support visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust www.jostrust.org.uk/ or call the charity’s free helpline on 0808 802 8000
- The coronavirus pandemic, which began in early 2020, is likely to have had some impact on the data toward the end of the time period this report covers, but the main effect of the pandemic will be apparent in next year’s data set.