Page last updated at 23:37 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 00:37 UK

'Smear delay nearly cost me my life'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Shagufta Fayyaz
Shagufta urges women not to delay

Shagufta Fayyaz considers herself a lucky woman - her cervical cancer was caught before it had spread.

But she knows she could have been even luckier if she had just kept her appointment for a routine smear test.

The mother-of-five ignored letters calling her in for a test for over a year, despite suffering worrying symptoms.

Shagufta says she wishes she had taken the check more seriously and admits ignoring it could have cost her life.

"I kept getting the reminders from my GP and because I was busy with my normal everyday life, the children and work, I just kept putting it off," said 49-year-old Shagufta, who is a teaching assistant from London.

"I just kept saying I will go tomorrow.

The smear is only a discomfort of a couple of minutes and it could save your life
Shagufta Fayyaz

"I had pre-period bleeding and I was worried, but I didn't go."

She thought her symptoms were a sign of her menopause.

But doctors found she had a large cancerous tumour and she was operated on within a week.

"I didn't think it would be cancer, but it was. I thought my delay had cost me my life.

"I thought 'am I going to die?', 'Who will care for my five girls when I'm gone?'"

But despite the size of the tumour, doctors found it was confined to the cervix and had not spread to the lymph nodes.

Shagufta needed a radical hysterectomy - which involves the removal of the uterus, the cervix, a small portion of the upper part of the vagina and some soft tissue from within the pelvis.

"I did not need chemo or radiotherapy. I was very lucky.

"But I was in hospital for 16 days and had a catheter for seven weeks to drain the urine. I still have lost some sensations and my stitches still hurt.

"The hysterectomy has also induced my menopause, and that has come on so strongly.

"I have gone over this so many times, I was so busy, but a smear only takes half an hour. You have to make time for yourself."

Jade effect

Shagufta's consultant, Paul Carter, who works at St George's Hospital, in south London, said he estimated that about 30% of women delayed attending smear tests and warned that this could have dire consequences.

"We are still seeing women on a weekly basis being diagnosed with advanced cancer, who have put off having their smears for nearly a decade and, like everything else in life, time passes quickly. And when they get reminders it's a case of 'I'll get round to it soon'," he said.

"Shagufta should do well. But if it had been picked up earlier it could have been dealt with by a simple cone biopsy of the cervix under local anaesthetic.

Jade Goody
After Jade's illness the numbers getting screening soared

"I have another lady who has delayed her smear for eight years and she has now presented with cancer extending all the way from the cervix to the spine and the pelvis.

"She is beyond surgical treatment and so will need to be treated by a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

"The bottom line is attend for your smears."

After television personality Jade Goody died from cervical cancer last year, the amount of women coming forward for smear tests doubled, but experts say numbers have fallen away.

Robert Music, director of the cervical cancer charity Jo's Trust, said: "It looks as if screening uptake is back to levels before Jade was diagnosed, which is worrying.

"This highlights the real need for long-term investment in smart, targeted education and awareness programmes.

"We need to remind women that cervical cancer is a largely preventable disease and one where they can take proactive steps to reducing their risk."

Shagufta says she has ensured her four eldest daughters attend their smears on time and her teenage daughter is to get the cervical cancer vaccine that protects against human papillomavirus (HPV) - thought to be the cause of 99% of cases .

"I was constantly on their case to book in. And after hearing about me all my friends, who had been putting off their smears, booked theirs.

"I would say to anyone 'the smear is only a discomfort of a couple of minutes and it could save your life'."

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