lifestyle

Women2day: A woman's right to choose

Why women should have the right to ask for a cervical smear test, even if they aren't due one

The Chronicle is supporting Lucy Rushton in her quest to change the law for cervical cancer screening, so that women should have the right to demand a smear test when their GP thinks they need one, regardless of when they may be due for one.(Image: Ian Cooper)

Carmella De Lucia is urging Women2day readers to sign a petition to see a change in the law so that women have the right to demand a smear test when their GP recommends it, even if they are not due for one.

I have already written a few articles on this page about cervical cancer screening because it’s something I have always felt very strongly about, but even more so after I spoke to local woman Lucy Rushton who told me about her experience, which I want to highlight this week.

When Jade Goody died in 2009 at the age of 27, it stunned me, not least because she was so young and left two young children behind, but because it highlighted just how vitally important smear tests are to women.

Currently women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are screened for any cervical abnormalities from the age of 25, while in Scotland, women are screened at 20, although in 2016 this is set to change to follow the same screening schedule as the rest of Britain.

According to scientists, younger women should not be screened because it ultimately leads to more harms than benefits. Research has shown that cervical cancer is rare in women under 25, and changes in the cervix are said to be quite common in younger women, and by getting screened, it could result in a follow-up gynaecological investigation, the treatment for which increases the likelihood of the woman having a premature birth in the future.

But what if you already have a history of pre-cancerous cells, are constantly experiencing the symptoms of cervical cancer, but you are refused a smear test because you’re still under the age limit of screening, despite your GP recommending you have one?

This is exactly what happened to Lucy, from Waverton , who was originally treated for high grade pre-cancerous cells back in 2008 when she was 19. After her treatment she had smears which were clear for the next two years and was told her next one would be due in 2016.

But in May 2013, she went to the doctors after experiencing severe lower abdominal pain, irregular bleeding and backache – the same symptoms she had experienced in 2008.

At the time, Lucy’s GP told her although he’d like to do a smear to rule out cervical abnormalities being the cause of her pain, he couldn’t because she was not due for one until 2016, so she had no choice but to leave with no investigation or examination.

But the pain continued, and got so bad that in May 2014, after pleading with the doctor to do a smear test, she finally got one and he made a note on the system to say he agreed it was the best course of action.

So Lucy was stunned to receive a letter just a week later saying the laboratory had refused to test her smear because she was not due for one. But she was so desperate to get checked that her parents paid for her to have one done privately through BUPA. A few weeks later she was diagnosed with the early stage cervical cancer stage 1a1.

“This is the earliest stage of cervical cancer but it can still require full hysterectomy,” says Lucy, now 26. “I get married in six months and a family would be part of my future, so obviously I was devastated.

“Luckily for me, my treatment was successful and a hysterectomy wasn’t required. But the only thing on our minds was ‘What if I’d have had to wait until 2016 to find this out?’ Not everyone has the money to pay for private screening, so what then?”

Lucy’s experience with consecutively being refused smear tests has led her to support the Smear On Demand campaign, set up by the family of 23-year-old Sorcha Glenn from Northern Ireland.

Sorcha had asked doctors for a smear test due to a family history of cervical cancer, but was also refused smear tests on account of her age. She suffered from back pain and had bleeding between periods, but she was not allowed a test because she was under 25.

By the time she finally did get one, a mass of tissue was found on her cervix and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died just 13 months later.

Now her family have instigated the Team Sorcha campaign to adjust the current law so that if a GP believed a woman requires a smear, she should be able to have one, regardless of age.

“We’re not asking to change the age of smear tests, nor for more frequent routine tests,” emphasises Lucy. “It’s purely to consider a slight adjustment in the procedures. Cancer doesn’t follow NHS guidelines and can develop a lot quicker than in the five years you have to wait in between smears.

“The doctors and the hospital staff who treated me were fantastic and this is in no way a reflection of them or the NHS as a whole. It is a slight tweak to the strict rules within the smear test legislation that doesn’t allow GPs to treat their patients effectively and eliminate problems at the beginning, rather than letting it get out of control and become more costly to the NHS and dangerous for the patient,” she added.

Sorcha’s family have now created an e-petition to try and ensure no woman is refused screening based on age. It currently has 60,000 signatures but needs to reach 100,000 by the end of March before the issue can be debated in the House of Commons.

So it is with both Lucy and Sorcha’s stories in mind, and all the other women affected by cervical cancer, I urge readers of Women2day to sign this petition to allow women to be at least considered for a smear test if their GP believes one is needed.

Awareness of cervical cancer is so vitally important, and I truly believe if a woman with history and symptoms ask for a test, it is their human right to be granted one.

Too many women are being refused smears based on age or because the NHS computer says they aren’t due for one,” says Lucy.

“I’m perfectly open about my story because it’s encouraged my friends and family to stop delaying their smears and make sure they’re aware of symptoms,” she added. “Cancer doesn’t care about your age and neither should the NHS.”

 

KNOW THE FACTS

It is important to know the reasoning behind why the Government have set the screening age limit at 25.

In 2003 the Advisory Committee on Cervical Cancer Screening (ACCS) advised the NHS Cervical Screening Programme to raise the starting age for cervical screening from 20 to 25 because they said cervical screening does more harm than good in younger women.

Six years later, the ACCS held an extraordinary meeting to review the evidence relating to risks and benefits of cervical screening in women under 25 and members voted unanimously to keep the screening age at 25.

The committee said that cervical cancer is rare in women under 25, and that cell abnormalities in younger women usually go away of their own accord. Sending young women for further tests and treatment increased the likelihood of the woman having premature births if she went on to have children, and could cause significant anxiety, they believed.

It is for these reasons that Lucy, and indeed myself, are not trying to get the age lowered under 25; we understand why those guidelines are in place and know that it is not a change we are likely to see happen.

What we would like to see happen however, is for women to have the right to be granted a smear test if their GP believes in their own professional medical opinion, that one is needed – regardless of whether they are under the age of 25 or not.

Why should Lucy have had to pay hundreds of pounds to get screened and find out she had early stage cervical cancer, after being refused a smear test even though her GP had recommended she have one?

Why were Sorcha’s pleas for a test repeatedly dismissed, despite her family history concerns and symptoms, just because she was a few years under the age limit?

It is my fervent hope that as many people as possible can get on board with this campaign, but even if the law doesn't get changed, I cannot stress enough how important it is to continually keep raising awareness of cervical cancer screening.

So please help get this issue talked about by signing the petition to allow women the right to demand a smear test if their GP recommends it.

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