Cancer nurse's warning over drop in cervical screening

Dawn Atkinson, a Macmillan gynaecological cancer nurse at Lister Hospital in Stevenage

Dawn Atkinson, a Macmillan gynaecological cancer nurse at Lister Hospital in Stevenage, is encouraging eligible women to have cervical screening - Credit: Courtesy of Macmillan Cancer Support

A cancer nurse at Stevenage's Lister Hospital is encouraging women to come forward for cervical screening, warning of potential "fallout from drop in attendance during the pandemic".

As part of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (January 17-23), Dawn Atkinson, a Macmillan gynaecological cancer nurse at Lister, is raising awareness of the importance of cervical screening.

Also known as a smear test, cervical screening is intended to detect abnormalities within the cervix and prevent the potential development of cervical cancer, and is available to women in the 25 to 64 age group.

Data from NHS Digital shows a drop in cervical screening attendance in 2020-21, with no local authority in the country achieving the 80 per cent "acceptable level" of cervical screening coverage.

In Hertfordshire, it stood at 73.8 per cent and in Central Bedfordshire it was 76.2 per cent. 

While attendance has undoubtedly been affected by the pandemic, Samantha Dixon, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “We cannot afford to let coverage slip further. It will only lead to even more cancers that could have been prevented.”

Dawn, who has been a Macmillan gynaecological cancer nurse at Lister for 21 years, says screening remains the most effective form of protection against cervical cancer. 

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She said: “Only time will tell whether cervical cancer diagnoses have been impacted by the pandemic. Cervical cancer can take years to develop and can be asymptomatic in the early stages, so any pre-cancerous growths that go undetected now could potentially turn into something harmful in the future.

“Fallout from any drop in screening attendance during the pandemic may only be evident in several years’ time, when patients present with symptoms.

"We’re determined not to let the pandemic reverse the progress we’ve made and that’s why we’re encouraging people to continue attending their screenings as usual."

She continued: “There are several reasons why people do not attend their screening appointments and a large part of that is fear.

"Reducing that fear comes down to familiarising yourself with what the examination entails - a very short swab test that may cause mild and fleeting discomfort, rather than the agony some imagine - and understanding that in the vast majority of cases, a smear will return nothing of concern.

“At most, it might detect an abnormality that can be easily treated, or a strain of the highly common HPV virus that can be monitored, but in most cases will be cleared by the body’s natural immunity.

"Practice nurses are highly experienced at carrying out these screenings and will answer questions and ease a patient’s fears and anxieties.

“A significant proportion of the cervical cancer patients I see will have missed a smear test, although it’s not impossible for cancer to develop in between screenings.

"That only happens in a very small amount of patients. Generally, any pre-cancerous changes will be detected and treated before they have a chance to develop into cancer.

“For the very small number of women who develop cancer, specialist nurses like me serve as a vital point of contact for them.

"We are there to guide them through every stage of their diagnosis and treatment, answering questions, explaining their scans and identifying the emotional and practical issues that they may require support with.

"Cancer is a deeply personal experience, so while I may have cared for thousands of gynaecological cancer patients in the last two decades, each person is unique and requires an individualised approach.

“As with all gynaecological cancers, a cervical cancer diagnosis can bring with it life-changing decisions that can have a significant emotional impact.

"Some patients question whether they will feel less like a woman if they have to undergo radical surgery to remove their cervix, and often their womb too.

"It’s important to note, though, that most people do really well after treatment, and for the small number who experience physical or emotional setbacks, the personalised care and support they need is available.

“Whether you are looking for more information on cervical screening, or just want to learn more about the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer, it’s best to visit jostrust.org.uk or macmillan.org.uk for high-quality information and advice.”