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Sam Dixon became Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust in May 2021. In her first blog post, ahead of Cervical Screening Awareness Week, she shares her experience of cervical screening: her last appointment in June 2021 and her first one in the 90’s, after which she received an abnormal result.
As the letter lands on my doorstep I think “Is it really three years since my last smear test?” I am always keen to book my test. This goes much further than being something the Chief Executive of a cervical cancer charity might be expected to say, or having little else to do with my time; it’s because I had what I would class as a ‘near miss’. I am eternally grateful to the NHS GP, who, I realise, may have saved me from a much worse diagnosis many years ago.
I went to my first cervical screening test back in the ‘90s and, like many people in their 20s, really didn’t think that it would show anything. So convinced was I that I was pretty much invincible at that age, and so busy was I with more interesting things in life at that time, that I moved house across London, didn’t tell my old GP and didn’t register with a new GP immediately. It was only through the dedication of my old GP who somehow managed to track me down across London and who then told me that my cervical screening results showed ‘abnormal cell changes’ as they worded it in those days.
I was booked in for a colposcopy and, thinking it would just be a quick check up with a further appointment for treatment, planned to be at work straight afterwards. Imagine my surprise when I received laser treatment there and then. The lack of knowledge or information I had to understand what was happening left me feeling pretty shocked and unable to return to work. How different things might have been for me had Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust been available then, not only to help me understand but also some of the amazing work I have already seen in improving the patient experience, including when attending colposcopy.
From now on, this invitation for cervical screening will land less frequently on my doormat. I have now reached my 50s, the age at which cervical screening takes place every five years. Worryingly the number of women attending cervical screening over the age of 50 decreases as age increases, with some specific reasons attributed to age such as physical difficulties in being tested due to the menopause. If this sounds familiar then take a look at this blog post for helpful, practical information to help you to get the screening experience you should expect. If you are still concerned then give our Helpline a call.
Having heard so many stories of delays due to Covid-19, I was really surprised when I rang my surgery that I was offered a choice of appointments the following week. Last night I went to my GP where I met the excellent nurse Donna. As this was my first cervical screening whilst officially classed as ‘menopausal’, I felt a bit more nervous than I would otherwise and had already read the advice on the Jo’s website so was armed with suggestions should things prove more difficult than normal. Whilst it was good to be prepared, it turned out I had no reasons to be worried. Donna was professional, respectful and friendly; it is always the mark of a good nurse when they can put you at ease during a process which feels anything but ‘normal’!
Donna regularly uses Jo’s materials and gives them to patients as she feels they are clear and understandable for people. She explained that her surgery is trying to encourage uptake of screening invitations, and one way is by giving a friendly call to anyone who has been sent an invitation and two reminders and still not booked their test. She has found that these calls are very helpful in understanding the concerns and barriers which exist among her patients and giving an opportunity to talk them through to enable patients to make fully informed decisions about whether to have the test or not. Donna has found that many then take up the opportunity.
I now have roughly a five-week wait for my results. Whilst that seems a longer wait than usual, I can understand the difficulties the NHS has in processing backlogs caused by the pandemic. In the meantime, however much I try not to think about it, there will always be that nagging thought that maybe my test will show cell changes once again. If that does happen then I know that Jo’s is there to provide the support and information which was missing for me back in 1996. I’m excited to be leading an organisation which can make such a tangible difference to the 220,000 every year who are told they have cervical cell changes, who might be feeling confused and scared. I know first-hand just how important it is that Jo’s is here.