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Older women sidestep embarassing cervical smear tests

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by Cancer Research UK | News

14 June 2011

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Older women are too embarrassed to go for smear tests, and fear pain, while younger women are too busy, according to a Cancer Research UK study, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology today.

This first study to explore age differences in barriers to cervical screening attendance suggested differences between the younger and older age groups.

The research team at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre interviewed 46 women, aged between 25-64. The women interviewed had either never attended cervical cancer screening or did not attend regularly.

Screening can prevent cases of cervical cancer. Around 730 women under the age of 35 are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year and around 1200 women aged 50 and over are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year.

Women in England are invited for cervical screening every three years from age 25-49 years and every five years from age 50-64. But in the last decade the proportion of women aged 25-64 in England who have been screened at least once in the previous five years, has dropped to 78.9 per cent, below the government’s target of 80 per cent.

The research revealed that women in their twenties and thirties were too busy to go for screening. They found it difficult to book a screening through the GP appointment systems, and a problem to arrange a time which fitted around their menstrual cycle.

Women in their fifties found fewer difficulties arranging an appointment but were less inclined to do so. They were not worried about the risk of developing cervical cancer, and were put off having screening because of embarrassment and fear of pain, sometimes resulting from previous experiences.

Study author Dr Jo Waller, at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, based at UCL, said: “This important study reveals the interesting reasons why women don’t attend cervical screening.

“We’ve found that there are age differences in barriers to screening and evidence which suggests that addressing practical issues such as appointment systems and clinic times might boost attendance in young women, whereas there appears to be a need to educate the older groups of the importance of making an appointment.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, said: “Despite a surge in the number of women having a smear test immediately after the death of Jade Goody, we know a large number of women are not going for a smear test. Older women might find the test embarrassing but it can save their lives. Women who don’t go for cervical screening face a higher risk of cervical cancer, so it’s important to encourage women of all relevant ages to take part.

“Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can actually be prevented through screening by picking up early changes in the cells before the disease develops. So understanding why different women don’t attend a screening and finding ways to change this is incredibly important.”


For media enquiries please contact the press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

Exploring age differences in reasons for nonattendance for cervical screening: a qualitative study. J Waller et al. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.