Cervical Cancer Smears: A Case for Changing NHS Guidelines
I have decided to write this piece to raise awareness of an incredibly important issue that has touched my life, and the lives of thousands of young women in the UK, and to gain some traction on a long standing campaign to change NHS guidelines.
Cervical Cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, and the age at which women display symptoms of the disease is falling into women in their teens and early 20s.
Cervical Cancer is cancer of the cervix (also known as the neck of the womb) which connects a woman’s womb and her vagina. Nearly all squamous cervical cancers are caused by a common sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). This is why the UK government is vaccinating girls at an early age before they are potentially exposed to the HPV virus.
However, whilst the government line is “the HPV vaccination protects girls from the virus”, this is categorically not true. The vaccination only prevents against certain types, and lasts until a girl is 18. As a young woman who was eligible for the vaccination at the time, and did not get it, it is understandable for myself, and girls in my position, to wonder if the vaccine would have made a bit of difference to my condition.
Government guidelines dictate that the life saving smear to find and treat the progression of cervical cancer, its preliminary and later stages, is only available to women 25 and over. Yet, research has shown that as girls become sexually active at a younger age, the risk of contracting HPV is higher.
Several high profile cases of women under the age of 25 has demonstrated the need to have a rethink of current guidelines, and this situation is only going to get worse.
Do not get me wrong, HPV progression to cancer is not a certainty, and in a lot of cases the virus clears up on its own. But what the NHS must understand is that if young women are coming to their doctors with symptoms of the disease, they must act. Not only are they endangering the lives of young women, they are potentially sacrificing that woman’s ability to have children, never minding the major mental health implications of living with symptoms and being repeatedly ignored by health professionals.
On my 19th birthday, I was diagnosed with CIN stage 2, which is the pre cancerous stage of HPV often found in women with high risk types of HPV. Even this diagnosis took almost a year, as I battled with doctors to take my symptoms seriously. Due to my age, I was denied a cervical cancer smear, but was fortunate to be allowed a ‘colposcopy’, a procedure usually done after an abnormal smear comes back (strange, I know).
Due to my age, not only were these cells not removed, I was placed on a six month check up list, whilst my doctors WAITED for my condition to worsen. A year later, my health deteriorated to the point where immediate hospitalisation was necessary. I again battled with doctors to take me seriously. Again, the same response, “You are too young to have these problems, it’s not cancer, you are too young”. All of this, despite having a CIN 2 diagnosis.
To explain, when HPV is high risk, the virus can change the cells within the cervix:
During this time, I ended up in an emergency unit in a hospital that was not my usual one. There, every doctor I interacted with told me that not only was my condition serious, and that I was in need of urgent treatment, but my usual doctors should be sued for negligence, and their treatment of me was ‘despicable’. Hours later, I was diagnosed with adnexal torsion (ovarian twist), and was told I needed immediate treatment. My usual doctors intervened, forcing me to go back to my hospital and undergo a pointless appointment with a doctor who hadn’t even read my medical notes, never mind cared about what the other doctors had said.
The variety in opinion from different doctors is not only staggering, its downright wrong. Patients are worried about their health enough without doctors making them feel even worse. I have been passed to so many doctors and given so many wrong diagnosis’s over the past couple of years, it is easy to see why people have given up on the NHS.
I consider myself lucky in that I am going back to the same hospital that recognised my symptoms, and will be getting the tests and treatment within one week. I am certain that CIN has progressed to cancer, and whilst that thought terrifies me, I feel relieved that I am going to be under the care of experts. A letter of complaint is already on its way to my previous doctor and hospital, and the campaign to lower the age limit gets stronger daily.
I have met other women and their families who have experienced the hell I am experiencing, and some of these women lost their lives because of the NHS guidelines, and because of doctors will little nor experience of HPV or its consequences.
I am one of the lucky ones, but for thousands of women nationwide, their story will end before their 25th birthdays, because of outdated guidelines and lack of knowledge on such a major health problem.