Lower the smear test age


white folders

Credit: Unsplash / Beatriz Perez Moya

Beth Carter

Upon enrolling for my undergraduate degree in Glasgow, I soon acknowledged the perks for the people of Scotland. Free water, free higher education, free prescriptions; and perhaps most importantly for a young woman of the age of 19, free NHS smear tests from the age of 20. These examples ticked all the boxes for viewing Scotland as a country that had simply got it right, and I felt privileged to live here when comparing the “perks” of living in England, the place that had brought me up. I was shocked to discover, then, after three years of ignoring invitations through my door, that Scotland has followed England’s footsteps in heightening the Cervical Screening Test (the smear test) age from 20 to 25.

After the receptionist had informed me just last week while booking my appointment, I felt angry, yet lucky at the same time. Angry, because young women cannot partake in the two-minute test until five years after the original legislation age of 20. Lucky, because I was 23, and still entitled for the cervical check as I had already been invited before the legislation changed – which had shockingly, to my suprise, changed on 6 June 2016. I discovered that the Scottish Government had changed the smear test age from 20-60, to 25-64, with the support of the UK National Screening Committee and Cancer Research UK. This baffled me further, leading me to question and investigate the reasons why.

Following England’s changing of the screening test age in 2004, the Scottish Government has adopted the same arguments. These arguments are a culmination of: young women’s attendance to the tests as decreasing, investigating normal cervical cell changes which could result in unnecessary treatment, and the tendency of women past age 60 having a stronger chance of getting cancer than the younger. I can’t help but question why, with cervical cancer being one of the only cancers that can be prevented completely if detected early enough, is the government taking such a risk?

In sacrificing the health of young women under the age of 25 to test women over the age of 60, this has become a pick and choose system. This seems to me a blatantly obvious NHS money-saving scheme that sacrifices one woman’s health for another’s. On average, 65 women below the age of 25 are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in the UK. Would Scotland have held off if this figure was higher? Young women’s health should not be placed on a back bench because faceless figures and statistics aren’t high enough. 65 women are at risk regardless of the legislation, and unless they pay privately for a smear test, their abnormal cell changes or symptoms such as bleeding between periods or after sex are unlikely to be listened to by our NHS – a depressing thought and a shocking reality.

Amber Rose Cliff’s cervical cancer silently escalated during her teenage years. Her case caused her to suffer from symptoms aforementioned from the age of 18, and after many requests and many declines from her local GP, a cervical cancerous tumour was discovered after a paid-for private screening test. It was too late, the cancer had already spread to her lungs and other vital organs. Amber lost her battle with cancer, and life, at the young age of 25 on 8 January 2017. This is just one example of a young woman’s preventable death, but surely an example serious enough to prevent the injustice of young women becoming victims of a money-saving scheme as opposed to a life-saving, two minute test. If anything, cervical screening tests should be reformed to compliment the legal age of intercourse, as Amber’s case highlights the development of the cancerous symptoms in her teenage years. #AmbersLaw is a petition fighting to allow 18+ aged young women to have the option of a smear test if they have certain symptoms, in every GP practice in the UK.

From the age of 25-49, women are invited to have a smear tests every three years, increasing to every 5 years from 50-64. Smear tests are important for detecting abnormal cell changes of the cervix, the entrance to the womb. After putting it off and placing it to the back of my mind for almost three years, I understand that the smear test can seem daunting, scary and like an invasion of privacy. It’s not. And it’s over in less than two minutes. I left the room wondering why I hadn’t got it over with earlier. I encourage any Scottish or English young woman who has been called before the testing age reforms took place in June 2016 to make an appointment; you’re still entitled to be seen. Do it for a young woman who didn’t get that option, and died because that choice was made for her.

Sign the petition: https://www.change.org/p/the-government-lower-the-age-of-cervical-cancer-screening-to-18-for-high-risk-groups