In which Vicki Sigston looks at cervical health, and finds some troubling details about screening in Medway..
So, it’s 2019. A whole new year to grab by the horns and make some positive changes in this mad world that we find ourselves in.
I’d love to say that our local government and councillors have been doing just that but sadly anyone with even half a toenail in politics is still embroiled in the B word, and frankly I don’t have the energy to talk about that.
So instead, something that I hadn’t heard of until recently.. January is “Cervical Health Awareness Month”.
I had obviously heard about cervical health. I do have a cervix and am keen to keep it healthy, but a whole month dedicated to this topic? That’s brilliant.
As an antenatal practitioner I talk about vaginas, cervices, breasts and other body parts a lot in my daily life and have always ensured that my children know all about human anatomy and its wonders. Using proper anatomical words for parts of our bodies helps encourage questions and discovery. But I know not everyone feels comfortable with that approach, and that in some households these words and topics are often not mentioned at all.
Many people don’t know exactly how their bodies are supposed to work, what’s normal and what is most definitely not normal and, very importantly, what we can do to keep ourselves healthy.
Knowing how your body works means you are more likely to notice when something is not quite right and be able to do something about it. There have been great campaigns in body awareness over the past few years. Celebrity endorsed drives encouraging us to check our breasts for lumps and bumps (Coppafeel) and make sure our testicles are good and healthy (itsinthebag), and now it’s time for a cervical health too.
Women in the UK aged 25 to mid-60’s are offered routine cervical screening in the form of a smear test (a vaginal examination where a small brush is used to collect some cells from the cervix which can be tested for abnormalities) every 3 years.
During 2018 women in Medway were told that instead of the usual 14-day turnaround in results from smear tests, the average wait was going to be closer to 6 weeks due to changes in testing and a reduction in screening staff. This led to understandable worry and distress for women affected as they faced waiting much longer than expected for news. For anyone who has had to wait for the results of a health check you will know how much our brains can run away with us imagining the worst as the days and weeks tick by.
This delay in responding came at a time when figures show that the number of women attending their recommended cervical smear tests are at an all-time low across England. Women cite embarrassment, along with not understanding the process among reasons why they don’t have these regular check ups. I doubt the issues with processing tests helped confidence in the process much either.
NHS figures show us that the number of women dying from cervical cancer has halved over the past few decades with the screening programme, along with better treatments, being behind the impressive results.
Yet, although it has been shown how successful the screening is for keeping women healthy, something is still stopping women from coming forward, from speaking out and from accessing these services.
As I have talked about before for this blog, as a society we do not do a good enough job of helping our young people learn about, and be confident in, their bodies. In a society where, all too often women’s breasts are used to advertise everything from cars to beer, and all our young people are shown how they are expected to look (and told how they should feel), we are failing to help young girls understand the very normal physiological processes that their bodies go through throughout their lives. This leads to a generation (or more) of women who are not confident about their bodies, don’t really understand about menstruation, puberty, sexual health or the menopause, and so, as above, they are embarrassed by these ideas and reluctant to talk about them.
We should be offering safe spaces for these conversations to be had. We should be making sure that our laboratories and clinical services have the finances and support they need to process tests quickly and accurately. We need to stop the sexual imagery used in everyday advertising and start being realistic about our bodies and about our health.
So, let’s shout about cervical health this month.
Let’s help support the #smearforsmear campaign and let’s not be embarrassed by these important conversations.
Vicki Sigston is an Antenatal Practitioner and Breastfeeding Counsellor currently living in Medway. She and her husband have 2 boys that they home educate with support from Medway’s incredible home ed community. You can follow her work life on Facebook and Instagram.
Vicki has a website called Mum of 2 Boys that she likes to post (hopefully) useful bits and pieces on too. She also suffers with a chronic condition called Endometriosis and she shares her journey with all of that here.