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Most women don’t know that smear tests prevent cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

22 September 2005

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Two thirds of British women do not know that a cervical smear test is designed to prevent cancer – according to a new survey by Cancer Research UK.

Such widespread ignorance about a screening test that saves thousands of lives each year is alarming. And it is particularly worrying that the 1575 people surveyed were within the 25-64 age bracket when women are regularly invited for cervical screening.

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “The purpose of the cervical smear is all about prevention. The test detects any abnormal cells that could become cancerous and follow-up treatment will prevent cancer developing.

“As part of Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign we are urging women to go for regular screening checks when they are invited. We know that only 50 per cent of women of all ages are aware that a national cervical screening programme exists while 90 per cent know about breast screening.

“It is vitally important to get the message out that screening saves lives because the number of cases of cervical cancer has dropped dramatically since widespread screening was introduced.

“Before the national screening programme was introduced the death rate from cervical cancer among British women under 35 was among the highest in the developed world. Only Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania had higher rates than the UK. Between 1967 and 1987 cervical cancer death rates in Britain trebled.

Since the national screening programme began in 1988 the trend has reversed. It is calculated that the screening programme is today saving more than 1,000 lives each year.

The survey also revealed that almost a quarter of women questioned did not associate the smear test specifically with cancer.

But even among those women who realised the smear test was connected with cancer there was a basic misconception: they thought the test was designed to detect cancer rather than to pick up a potentially pre-cancerous condition.

Dr Walker added: “It is extremely important that women understand this difference. If they think the test only detects cancer they may fear to go for regular checks. It is important to reassure women that cervical screening is designed to prevent cancer developing. Before screening the UK was set to see thousands more women dying from cervical cancer.”

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