Why you need to make time for a smear test

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Think you are too busy to book a smear test? Lucy O’Donnell delivers some straight talking advice about why this is the appointment you need to prioritise…

Cancer. A diagnosis that can send shockwaves down our spines. A battle that can take us to hell and back. A disease that can change the course of our lives forever. It sounds pretty frightening, doesn’t it? Well, apparently not. Or, at least, according to several young women in the UK today.

My name is Lucy O’Donnell and I am a wife, mother, author and entrepreneur. Since 2011, I have been living with Stage 4 cancer, and I spend much of my time these days working as a Cancer Wellness Advisor. I offer guidance to those struggling with cancer and I work closely alongside a number of charities and organisations, such as Maggie’s Cancer Care and Macmillan Cancer Care. As somebody who has experienced the trials and tribulations of living with this disease first-hand, I was horrified to recently come across an article in Jo’s Trust reporting that just 1 in 4 women in the UK attend their annual smear tests.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. And it is 100% preventable. Now, those are two statistics worth listening to. And yet, it appears that over a third of women choose to miss these potentially life-saving screenings out of embarrassment of their body shape. Of course, taking our clothes off (especially in front of strangers) can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but ladies, these nurses carry out millions of tests every year, and are professionals in their field. Also, smear tests have been developed and cause nowhere near as much discomfort as they used to. For the sake of five minutes, put your pride to one side! The alternative could be so much worse.

Aside from refusing to attend smear tests for appearance-related reasons, what particularly concerns me is the total lack of awareness surrounding cervical cancer, particularly among the younger generation who, sadly, are the most affected demographic. An overwhelming 99.7% cases of cervical cancer are caused by the sexually-transmitted HPV virus, and a vaccine is available for it under the NHS for all UK females between the ages of 12 and 18. It is so avoidable—and yet the number of annual diagnoses is increasing.

Without a doubt, the impact of former Big Brother star Jade Goody, who died of cervical cancer in 2009, was instrumental. In the year following her death, the number of young women attending smear tests in the UK increased by a third, and her efforts to increase awareness ended up saving so many lives. Finally, we had found a famous figure to lead an awareness charge on this female form of cancer.

However, as the 10-year anniversary of her death soon approaches, the new generation of young women is emerging, and unfortunately, these girls are more interested in scrolling through their iPhone screens than attending cancer screenings. And understandably so, if given the choice, we would obviously choose Facebook over fear, Instagram over injections, Snapchat over smear tests. There’s no doubt about it: the word ‘cancer’ is enough to make any young and apparently healthy woman run a mile.

And so, my question is: what can we do to raise awareness of cervical cancer and ensure that these girls go and get tested? Well, first of all, we need to tap into today’s technology-obsessed world. There have been a number of successful social media campaigns, such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge on Facebook, which generated a whopping 115 million dollars in charitable donations within 6 weeks. It’s so exciting to think that such a simple concept could go viral in an instant, sending such an important and powerful message along the way. Creatives of the world—put your thinking caps on!

What’s more, as I have always said, cancer is an industry and it should therefore be treated as such. The inspiring story of Jade Goody has done wonders in elevating our understanding of cervical cancer. However, the reality is that the majority of today’s young girls do not know who she is, and as a result, we need a fresh face who can capture their unrivalled attention. In my opinion, charity organisations should strive to employ a famous Instagram persona to head the charge. Think about it: Kendall Jenner has 89 million followers. Cara Delevigne has 41 million. Gigi Hadid has 39 million. Just imagine—if asked to spearhead a mammoth marketing campaign aimed at raising the awareness of cervical cancer among young women, the level of exposure would be astronomical. Without a shadow of a doubt, lives would be saved.

Over the past seven years, I have championed living a regular and healthy life with cancer, and I always consider myself to be thriving with it, as opposed to dying with it. That said, I would not wish the pain, heartbreak or fear of living with cancer on anybody. Cervical cancer is preventable. So get vaccinated. Get screened. Get tested.

Lucy O’Donnell is the author of Cancer is my Teacher, available to purchase on Amazon.

Photo: Shuttershock


Hettie is the editor and co-founder of DOSE. A keen runner, she’s also partial to a blast of high-intensity and hot yoga. A country girl at heart, she divides her time between London and the lush rolling hills of North Devon. When she’s not jetting off on her next adventure, Hettie can be found in a candle-lit alcove with a laptop, a spaniel and a full bodied Malbec.

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