Far too many women are avoiding smear tests for a range of reasons, one prominent one being because they're embarrassed. Out of 2,005 young women surveyed by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust earlier this year, 81% said they either delayed or didn't go to their cervical screenings for that very reason.
And it's worrying, because there is honestly nothing to be embarrassed about. The doctors and nurses doing the screenings have all seen approximately 472,894* other vaginas in their careers so far, and - believe it or not - during the forty-five seconds they spend near yours, they're not going to be doing much staring at its external aesthetic.
*This isn't an official stat, but I bet it's not far off
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the role genital embarrassment plays in preventing so many women from going to have their smear tests, which is why a DIY testing kit could be just the option many women need.
All about HPV
Speaking last week to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Professor Sir Mike Richards, who is currently leading a review of cancer screening, revealed the NHS is piloting schemes to enable women to test themselves for HPV in the privacy of their own homes.
Having already been tried out in the Netherlands, where DIY tests saw a boost in the number of women undergoing screenings, Richards said the scheme showed "great promise".
"We may get to a different segment of the population by offering HPV self-sampling sets through the post," he said. And he's right, because it could be an effective (and far more private) way for women to find out if they're at risk of developing cervical cancer in the near future.
Here's why it could work: smear tests in the UK are changing over the next year so they'll now be what's called 'HPV primary screenings'. HPV - or human papilloma virus - is a common virus that causes 99.7% of all cervical cancers. It's sexually transmitted, but most people won't even know they have it. The chance of contracting HPV across your lifetime is extremely high, with around 8 out of 10 people becoming infected with it at some point in their lives.
Because HPV causes nearly all incidences of cervical cancer, it makes sense to test women for HPV first. If they've got one of 13 strains of the virus that is known to potentially cause cervical cancer, then they're a priority for having their cervix monitored to ensure there's no evidence of pre-cancer. If they don't have HPV, it would be almost impossible for them to develop cervical cancer.
With me so far? NHS-run, clinic-based smear tests in England will soon be adapted to follow this line of thinking (it's already been changed in Wales, and Scotland will follow suit next year). So while the procedure itself won't change - a speculum will still be inserted into the vagina, with a swab taking samples of cervical cells - the change will come when the sample is sent off for testing. Instead of checking the cervical cells on the swab for changes (abnormalities), labs will now test samples for HPV first instead.
The DIY test
The NHS may be rolling out trials of an at-home testing scheme soon, but Better2Know.co.uk, a private provider of sexual health testing services in the UK, has already introduced a DIY testing kit for HPV.
With the idea of someone else retrieving their samples being a cripplingly embarrassing or hugely uncomfortable one for many woman, it could be easier just to do it themselves at home.
But obviously doing it privately comes at a cost. Until the NHS rolls out free tests nationwide, Better2Know.co.uk's DIY HPV tests can be ordered online for £99. They're self-administered in private, and the samples then need to be returned via post to the company, who will provide analysis and results within five working days.
From there, if a woman is found to test positive for one of the high-risk strains of HPV, it would be recommended she go to a doctor (either privately or via the NHS) for further investigation. If not, she can relax in the knowledge that she's extremely unlikely to develop cervical cancer, and doesn't need to think about getting tested again for another three years (smear tests are advisable every three years by the NHS for women who have no abnormalities).
You might be wondering why we actually need to fanny round (excuse the pun) with all these screenings and at-home swabs in the first place. And the only thing to be said about that is that it could literally save your life.
The NHS' cervical screening programme saves 5,000 lives every year in the UK and provides the best protection against cervical cancer, protecting against 75% of cervical cancers. With more than 3,000 women diagnosed with the disease each year in the UK - and with cervical cancer being the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under - it's so, so important to protect your health in this way.
Don't let embarrassment stop you - whether that means taking a 'grin and bear it' approach and just going to your smear test, or if it means investing in an at-home kit you can do in private.
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