Cervical cancer viewed as a younger woman’s disease

As Cervical Screening Awareness Week gets underway (15-21 June) the BBC reports how cervical cancer is perceived as a young woman's disease – despite the fact that half of deaths occur in women over 65.

A new survey reveals that, on average, there were 449 deaths as a result of cervical cancer between 2010 and 2012 amongst over-65s, compared to just seven in under-25s. The survey – published in the British Medical Journal – also argues that the age limit for cervical screening should be raised to 70 and that older women should be targeted in health campaigns.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, but affects women of all ages. The NHS cervical screening programme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sends invitations for cervical screening to a women between the ages of 25 and 65 (although they can request a screening after that time). In Scotland, women are currently screened between the ages of 20 and 60, but this is due to change to come into line with England's programme in April 2016.

It appears that the perception of cervical cancer as a younger woman’s disease does impact upon attendance of these screenings, however. The survey shows that by the age of 60-64, just 72% of women in England in 2013 had been screened in the previous five years, compared with 82% of 50 to 54-year-olds and 76% of 55 to 59-year-olds. The report also found that women who had been tested regularly between the ages of 50 and 64 had a relatively low risk of getting the disease in the next 20 years, but women who had not been screened during this time increased their risk considerably. 

In the BBC report, Dr Sue Sherman, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, and lead author of the survey, says: “This has become a significant contributor to the number contracting the disease. We need to change the perception of cervical cancer so it is thought of just like breast and bowel cancer – that it can affect women well into old age."

She suggested that the death of TV celebrity Jade Goody at the age of just 27 in had contributed to the perception of the disease, even though 20% of new diagnoses are in women over 65. It is estimated that cervical screening saves 4,500 live in England every year.

Jullien Brady – a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and Clinical Advisor for GynaeCheck and Check4Cancer, with extensive experience in the UK cervical screening programme – comments: “Attendance for screening clearly declines after the age of 50 and especially 60 – but the key issue is getting more women to attend screenings, no matter what their age. Since it was established in 1988, the screening programme has been phenomenally successful, saving around 100,000 lives by the year 2012. But we can do even better. Such is our success in treating this particular cancer that If a woman attends when first invited for cervical screening – just before her 25th birthday – and then attends every single test after that, her chances of dying from cervical cancer are practically zero. It is therefore a completely preventable disease, but only if the screening appointments are taken up. This is the issue Cervical Screening Awareness Week seeks to address. GynaeCheck helps by offering an easier, more user friendly way of screening as we know many older women find speculum examinations difficult.”