(I'm wearing my Pearl of Wisdom pin all week)
A couple weeks ago I was in the pub with some friends when the topic of pap smears came up (as they are want to do of a Friday night). I found myself in shock as a number of these women - all massively intelligent, educated and sex positive - had either never had a smear test or had only gone for one and never went back. When asked about their reasons why, they told me fear of pain, time & inconvenience, and embarrassment were contributing factors.
The last week of January marks the European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and in conjunction the Irish Family Planning Association has once again launched their Pearl of Wisdom campaign to raise awareness of the National Cervical Screening Programme. Thanks to this programme, every woman in the country aged 25 to 60 can get her smear tests done for free every three years from one of over 4,500 doctors who are registered with CervicalCheck.
So if it’s free and only needs to be done once every 3 years, why are women still hesitant to get it done? We go to the dentist once or twice a year, and depending on how well you take care of your teeth, that is arguably far more unpleasant. We’ve made great strides to address issues around mental health in Ireland, especially with young men in recent years. However according to the IFPA, “Each year about 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 90 lives are lost.”
As much as we’ve grown and matured as a country, it’s hard not to notice that we still have difficulty speaking about sexual health in a way that’s not about theoretical consequences. We talk about 300 women each year, but who are these women? I personally know at least 3 of them, and you probably do too, but the difficulty is that often times due to feelings of shame or embarrassment, many of these women don’t feel comfortable sharing their stories. I have 2 friends who swore me to secrecy never to tell anyone about their surgeries, so as not to kick up a fuss. But a fuss on a national scale is what is needed to get those numbers down.
We need to start talking about cervical cancer and pre-cancer as commonly and openly as we do about getting dental work done, and not just during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. The CervicalCheck website is a fabulous resource for information, and to check when you’re due for your next screening (mine’s in June of next year), but we all have a role to play here. I wonder if my friends who have had cervical cancer treatments had been in the pub that Friday night to hear that conversation, would have felt confident enough to speak up about their experiences. Would my other friends have felt inspired to ring their doctors and book an appointment?
And from a systemic point of view, I wonder if more could be done by doctors to reach out to their patients in a positive way? Are reminder cards or texts being sent out? Are free sexual health talks available for people to attend? How are GP’s, nurses, and consultants keeping up with new technology and ways of communication? In an era of “Alternative facts” and fake news, it is especially necessary for experts and health care professionals to get ahead of the communication curve when it comes to promoting women’s health.
According to The Times, the Irish Cancer Society estimates that roughly 15,000 HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccinations were refused last year. Gardisil, the vaccine’s brand name, protects against the most common strains of cervical cancer and genital warts. Gardisil and regular screening are the most effective, reliable prevention techniques we have, but thanks to widespread anti-vaccination campaigns many women’s lives are being put at risk.
This year for Cervical Cancer Prevention week and the Pearl of Wisdom Campaign and beyond, I would love for us all to think about, not just getting a screening for ourselves, but how we can encourage others in our lives to do the same and to get the Gardisil jab. I would love for healthcare professionals to think about how they can go that extra mile to make their patients feel comfortable so that they will continue to come back for screenings every 3 years.This is something that is very achievable, and if we all work together to chip away at it, we can bring that number of cervical cancer deaths down significantly.