New research reveals a lack of understanding about cervical screening and why some don’t attend

A new survey (YouGov) commissioned by the UK’s leading gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal has revealed a lack of understanding about what a cervical screening test is for and a range of barriers to attending a screening appointment when offered it.

Out of the 1070 women surveyed, 9 in every 10 (92%) said they thought they understood the purpose of cervical screening ‘very or fairly well’. However, nearly 2 in 3 (58%) respondents wrongly thought that a cervical screening test detected cancer in the early stages and only 1 in 3 women (32%) knew that the test was to prevent cancer from developing.  

A quarter of women (26%) thought it acted as a general gynaecological health check and the same amount (26%) thought it picked up all gynaecological cancers.  

The survey also found a range of barriers to attending a cervical screening appointment. Of the people questioned who had been invited for a screening but not attended, nearly 1 in 3 (29%) said they ‘didn’t want to have one’ and 27% said they had had ‘a bad experience with cervical screening in the past’. 16% said they ‘didn’t have time’ and 12% said the test ‘wasn’t a priority at that time'. 

The survey was commissioned for Cervical Screening Awareness Week which runs from 17 to 23 June. Every day in the UK, two women lose their lives to cervical cancer and nine more receive a life-changing diagnosis. Cervical cancer can affect anyone with a cervix at any age but it is most common between the ages of 30-34.

Cervical screening is a test offered to women and people with a cervix aged between 25 and 64 to help prevent cervical cancer. It looks for HPV (the virus which causes nearly all cervical cancers) and any changes to the cells which can then be treated or monitored to prevent them developing into cancer. Cervical Screening Awareness Week highlights the importance of regular screening to try and increase attendance. 

Athena Lamnisos, The Eve Appeal CEO, says: These survey findings clearly show that we have two jobs to do – communicating what the cervical screening test is for and overcoming the barriers to attendance. If we can do the first one effectively, it should have a real impact on the second. We have a very successful cervical screening programme in this country, it’s already estimated to save over 5,000 lives each year. We need to keep increasing that number by making sure people attend their tests when they are offered them. A big part of that is empowering them with information. We know cervical screening isn’t easy for everybody, and we are here with information, tips and support to help you get screened.” 

Dr Aziza Sesay, GP, says: “As a GP, seeing these stats and knowing that cervical cancer has the potential to one day be eliminated and that screening plays a crucial role in this, it really emphasises the importance of health awareness for the general population to encourage more to attend their appointments. More needs to also be done to address the barriers that exist, improve access and support those who find screening difficult overall. The NHS has set a target to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040. This is possible if we can reach the target of at least 80% attending their screening.  Currently, national uptake averages at just over 68%. There is a lot of work to be done but I am hopeful.”

 Tinuke Awe, Co-founder of Five X More, says: "More awareness needs to be made on getting women to understand exactly what a cervical screening is and its crucial role in prevention. Personally, my last smear test, which was long overdue, revealed high-grade changes. I'm grateful I finally had the screening and subsequently had a procedure to remove the abnormal cells, but I dread to think what could have happened if I had left it any longer. It's vital for women to realise that regular attendance can save lives by detecting changes early and preventing cervical cancer from developing."

More information

Visit our cervical screening web page.

The Eve Appeal has put together some information and tips to help make cervical screening tests a bit easier here: 

Anyone can contact Ask Eve, The Eve Appeal’s nurse-led information service, for information and advice on gynae health, including HPV, cervical screening and follow up - by emailing or calling 0808 802 0019.