Page last updated at 17:12 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

'You only have one life'

By Anna-Louise Taylor
BBC News

Lisa Askew
Lisa Askew lives by the motto "You only have one life"

Doctors are worried that there is a reluctance by many women to undergo cervical cancer screening tests. One cancer survivor explains why she is urging women not to take risks with their health:

"You had three smear tests, and they didn't work, so what's the point of me going?"

It was a question cervical cancer survivor Lisa Askew, 32, from Stockton-on-Tees, was often asked after her cancer went undetected.

But she still supported testing and told the sceptics: "You only have one life and you need to look after it."


Cervical cancer is more common among women living in the most deprived areas of England, research has found.

The National Cancer Intelligence Network figures show areas like Newcastle and Liverpool have far higher rates than parts of Surrey and the south Coast.

Lead researcher, Professor David Forman points out that it could be due to the fact that fewer women in deprived areas have cervical cancer tests.

Ms Askew, who is an administration officer, did not discover she had cancer until after her third smear test.

Doctors gave her a 50% chance of surviving, and she had to go through a "horrific" round of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

She said: "In the North-East, there are a lot of deprived areas, and if women contract cervical cancer, it's a waste.

Robert Music
Mr Music said poor, young women needed to be targeted

"It is so much easier in the longer term to get tested.

"Even if it's not 100% effective in detecting cancer, it's still worth it."

She said as the screening programme the NHS currently offered was only available to women aged 25-64, younger women, particularly in poorer areas, were missing out.

She is helping gather signatures for a petition to be handed in to Downing Street, calling for the minimum age for cervical cancer tests to be lowered from 25 to 18.

Ms Askew said for more women to be screened in poorer areas, things needed to change at a grassroots level.

"Family planning is not a nice place to go, it can be quite off-putting.

"There has to be no travelling involved - no cost to a low-income woman - and it needs to be a bit more interesting - a bit more fun."

Robert Music, director of Jo's Trust, a charity which supports cervical cancer sufferers, said the lower uptake of tests in poorer areas could be partly blamed on the fact that many women disliked having them.

"Our informal feedback is that they are uncomfortable and unpleasant, some people are scared they might find something else that perhaps is not cancer as well.

"A big amount of education needs to go on there."


Mr Music said while the introduction of the HPV vaccine for girls aged between 12 and 13 in the UK was an important step, increasing the awareness of the screening programme was the next big challenge to be tackled.

Jade Goody
Jade Goody's battle with cervical cancer is helping raise awareness

"When women go for tests, they need to know that vaccines are not the be all and end all, that they are part of a programme to combat cervical cancer.

"They must go for tests."

He said when former Big Brother TV show contestant Jade Goody contracted cervical cancer, Sheffield Primary Care Trust saw a huge increase in the number of women having tests.

He said the press coverage of her illness increased awareness of cervical cancer among a younger, poorer demographic, and she was the kind of figurehead that deprived young women needed as inspiration.

"What she has been through has been horribly negative for her, but it shows the importance of awareness."

Professor Julietta Patnick, director of NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said it was concentrating on making the scheme more accessible to less affluent women, and was working on speeding up results processing.

Liquid tests

She said the introduction of a new testing technique meant women no longer had to wait for up to three months and could get their results in two weeks.

"We are now using a liquid base rather than a smear across a slide - the cells go into a vial of liquid and are spun down into a circle on the slide.

"This means results are much clearer and we get a sample of all cells."

She said impoverished women could also be people who moved around a lot, which could prevent them from developing relationships with their GPs, also affecting screening rates.

"With a mobile population it can be difficult to track a woman down, and that may not be conducive to the relationship."

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