Every day in the UK, nine women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and three lives are lost to the disease, a major charity has warned.
In Northern Ireland, women are invited to cervical screening appointments at the age of 25. However, the uptake of women attending smear tests is lower than the rest of the UK with one in four women ignoring the invitation completely.
Health Minister, Edwin Poots said: “Raising public awareness of cervical cancer prevention is important because in Northern Ireland almost a quarter of women still do not attend for cervical screening, however there has been a steady increase in the proportion of eligible women attending for cervical screening.”
Reasons for this figure include confusion, embarrassment, fear and a lack of convenient appointment times for working women. Many women are unaware of the symptoms of the disease, such as lower back pain, which can often be misdiagnosed as minor ailments. However the consequences of a missed smear test can be very severe.
It is because of this that Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust launched Cervical Cancer Awareness Week at the beginning of this year to help increase awareness of the issue. Bus campaigns were launched in January along with the first ever support group meeting for people affected by the disease.
Michelle Roe is leading the Belfast support group and has previously been diagnosed with the illness.
She said: “I had advanced cervical cancer myself and Jo’s Trust was a lifeline to me when I was going through treatment. I wanted to help other women, so I heard about the group being set up and have been working for them since September.”
Since her diagnosis, Michelle has undergone a radical hysterectomy and had her ovaries and lymph nodes removed. She suffers from bowel damage, lymphoedema, infertility and going through the menopause in her thirties. In addition, Michelle has completed more than 40 sessions of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and internal radiotherapy. Michelle has emphasised the need to educate women on how this cancer can be prevented.
She added: “Please don’t put off having your smear, a few minutes of discomfort could save your life or having to go through all that painstaking treatment I went through, which compared to a smear is nothing.”
Donna Hand is also leading the support group and began her training last year. Her role is to facilitate support group meetings within the Belfast area to help provide support to women living with or beyond cancer.
She said: “Our first meeting was really to establish the group, we talked about Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and its history and what the charity aims to achieve and then it was really an open forum discussion for women to talk about cervical cancer and their experiences.”
“We have had a positive response from all those who attended our first meeting. As the group is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, the nursing professionals who attended are delighted that Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust are investing its services here in Northern Ireland and have already and I know will be a great support in referring patients to the group in the future,” she added.
Prior to her role with the charity, Donna supported her mother and aunt who both lost their lives to cancer. In addition, she was personally treated for abnormal cells in 2005, which may have progressed into cancer later on in life if they had not been discovered in regular smear tests.
She said: “For me, the past five years has been a rollercoaster of emotion and I still find it hard to comprehend life without my mum but I know that she would be extremely proud of me and the voluntary work that I am doing with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.”
There was a large increase in the number of women attending screening in 2008, following Jade Goody diagnosis. Since then, figures have fallen back to pre-2008 levels.
Donna said: “I fully understand the power of celebrity but feel that it is very sad when that’s what it takes for women to take notice and attend screening.”
“I can’t stress enough how vitally important it is for ladies to attend regular screening and look after their health,” she added.
The Department of Health has implemented a four year action plan from 2012 – 2015 to help promote informed choice in cancer screening which has been developed by the Public Health Agency. This includes actions to promote cervical screening.
Health Minister Edwin Poots stressed: “I would urge all women to take up her invite for cervical screening when asked to do so. The message is clear – screening saves lives.”