Although a routine smear test could save countless women from cervical cancer many in the North East are ignoring appointment invites. Health reporter JANE PICKEN finds out how one simple examination can make all the difference
IN just under 10 minutes, mum Corinne Munoz-Saiz underwent a simple examination which ultimately saved her life from cancer.
Little did the 33-year-old know that attending a regular smear test at her local doctor’s surgery last November would uncover the devastating presence of cervical cancer which, if left undetected, would have cost Corinne her life.
But now, after an essential five-hour operation to remove her womb, cervix and 13 pelvic lymph nodes in March, Corinne is cancer-free and looking forward to a bright future with husband Darren, 39, and their five-year-old daughter Anna.
And now knowing the difference a smear test can make, Corinne is urging other women to take up their appointments.
“I had been putting off having a smear simply because, like many other people, I didn’t have time, especially as I had been moving house,” said Corinne, from Bill Quay, Gateshead.
“But I’d been getting the warning signs for cervical cancer, including irregular bleeding.
“I thought cervical cancer was something older women got, and I never thought it would affect me. All I could think about was what would happen to my family if I died.
“Now I want people to be aware of what happened to me so more young women are encouraged to go for a smear.”
Corinne had her smear test in November last year, and in January she received a letter inviting her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead as medics had found worrying cell changes in her cervix.
A biopsy then revealed cancerous cells, and surgeons performed the operation known as a radical hysterectomy, to stop the cancer spreading.
Because the disease had been caught in its early stages, Corinne was saved from having radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
But cervical cancer has destroyed Corinne and Darren’s chances of having any more biological children together, although the devoted mum still believes she was one of the lucky ones.
And indeed there are 900 women every year who lose their battle with the disease.
“At the moment, we’re trying to come to terms with the fact that we won’t have any more children,” said administration assistant Corinne.
“But I still think I had a lucky escape and what happened to me should encourage women to make smear tests a priority to save them from what I went through.”
Despite pleas from medics and patients like Corinne, the North East has one of the worst smear test attendance rates in the country – with around 80% of women showing up for their appointments – meaning countless women are needlessly putting their lives at risk.
Under the NHS National Cervical Screening Programme, women between the ages of 25 and 65,are regularly invited to attend for smear tests.
The tests are vital for spotting the early signs of cervical cancer, a disease which can take around ten years to develop and one which commonly affects women aged between 35 and 44.
Smear tests are brief and only slightly uncomfortable, and, moreover, they are not some kind of daunting test for cancer – they are simply a way of spotting early abnormalities in the cervix (the neck of the womb) which if left untreated could lead to cancer.
So why the reluctance to attend among women?
“There are a few reasons but really no-one likes to have a such an intimate examination,” said senior nurse Freda Barber, who sees up to five women every day for smear tests in the Graingerville Clinic, at Newcastle General Hospital.
“Women are also afraid it might hurt or that the results might be bad. And there are some who are embarrassed by having an examination.
“I would reassure people that it doesn’t hurt at all and at the very worst it will be uncomfortable. Before we do an examination, I’ll make sure the patient is relaxed as much as possible.
“And they should also remember as a woman I’ve been through it all too, so I understand their reluctance.
“And as for unwanted results, it’s very unlikely it will be anything serious, and the smear is to find very early changes in the cells.
Sometimes, if there are changes, it will be a case of having another smear in six months and seeing if the cells have gone back to normal.”
A smear test itself will take a couple of minutes and results are usually ready within four weeks.
“The bottom line is that cervical screening saves women’s lives,” said Professor Vivien Hollyoak, North Tyneside director of public health.
“Around 4,500 women’s lives are saved every year, with over 3,900 cancers prevented each year simply because women attend their regular screening session organised by the national cervical screening programme through their own GP practice or sexual health clinic.
“Despite this 900 women in England and Wales die each year – and most of these deaths are very likely women who have not attended cervical screening or have delayed attending.
“So if you have missed an invitation to be screened, check with your GP practice and make an appointment. It really could save your life.”
And remember, if you are aged between 25 and 64 you are eligible for a free cervical screening test every three to five years.
Women should receive a letter inviting them to attend a screening session at their GP surgery or any sexual health clinic.
Spotting the signs of cervical cancer
THE symptoms of cervical cancer are not always obvious and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it has reached an advanced stage.
This is why it is extremely important to have regular cervical smear tests.
If cervical cancer does cause symptoms, the most common is abnormal bleeding, such as between periods or after sexual intercourse. In post-menopausal women (those who have stopped having periods) there may be new bleeding.
There are many other conditions that have similar symptoms.
However, it is important that you visit your GP or practice nurse if you have them.
Other symptoms of cervical cancer may include smelly vaginal discharge and discomfort when having sex.
CERVICAL cancer is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35.
Around 3,000 women are diagnosed with the disease in the UK every year and around 1,000 of these cases will turn out to be fatal.
Smear tests are offered to all women between the ages of 25 and 64 every three to five years and almost four million women are screened each year.
But the cervical smear test is not a test for cancer.
It is a method of preventing cancer by detecting and treating early abnormalities which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer in the cervix. Early detection and treatment can prevent 75% of cancers developing but like other screening tests the smear test is not 100% accurate. It may not always detect early cell changes that could lead to cancer.
Cervical cancer develops in a series of precancerous changes, starting with mild abnormalities in the cells and progressing towards full cancer.
The number of women being diagnosed with cervical cancer had fallen by more than 40% since the national screening programme was introduced in 1988.