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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Almost 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year. It can affect women of any age who are, or once were, sexually active and is the second most common cancer in women under 35.

Scientists have linked nearly all cases of cervical cancer to human papillomavirus or HPV. Most sexually active women will be infected with HPV at some point as it is very common but the virus usually clears up on its own.

If HPV persists it can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix that may lead to cancer if left untreated. Cervical screening detects these early changes and the abnormal cells can then be removed thereby preventing cancer developing.

To download a leaflet about reducing your risk of getting cervical cancer, go to the visit: Cancer Research UK Leaflets Section. Or send a stamped addressed envelope to CC Prevention, Cancer Information Department, Cancer Research UK, PO Box 123, London WC2A 3PX

Half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. Cancer Research UK’s Reduce The Risk Campaign urges people to go for screening when invited. In the case of cervical screening early detection of abnormalities will ultimately save thousands of lives.”