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Extend cervical cancer checks to older women, urge health experts

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 16/06/2015

Michelle Roe with her children Luke and Rachael
Michelle Roe with her children Luke and Rachael
Sorcha Glenn

Screening for cervical cancer should be extended to include women over 64 in a bid to treat more cases of the deadly disease, health experts have said.

The new British Medical Journal report says there is a perception that it is a young woman's cancer - but in fact half of deaths occur in women aged over 65. The review has led to calls for the age of cervical screening to be widened to include more older women.

Of the 3,121 women diagnosed on average each year between 2009 and 2011 in the UK, only 64 were under 25 while 616 were over 65.

Currently all women in Northern Ireland aged between 25 and 49 are offered a cervical smear every three years and women aged between 50 and 64 are offered screening every five years.

In the UK there was an average of 449 deaths from the cancer in over-65s and seven in under 25s between 2010 and 2012. While it is the most common cancer in women under 35, it continues to affect women of all ages.

Sue Sherman, senior lecturer at Keele University, said: "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."

In Northern Ireland, there has been an average of 80 women who are diagnosed each year.

Over half of these women either have never had a smear test or have not attended regularly for a smear test for five years or more.

The report 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.

Dr Sherman said: "This review suggests that older women not getting themselves screened to prevent cervical cancer has become a significant contributor to the number contracting the disease."

Dr Sherman said despite the attention on younger women - in part due to the death of television personality Jade Goody in 2009 aged 27 - 20% of new diagnoses and nearly 50% of cervical cancer deaths occur in women over the age of 64.

"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 said.

Recent campaigns have focused on lowering the age of women given access to smear tests.

Last year the family of 23-year-old Sorcha Glenn started a campaign. The Co Londonderry woman, who died last October, had been diagnosed in 2013 after originally being turned down for a smear test.

Meanwhile, the report says the number of older women affected is set to increase.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said: "It's absolutely vital that women of all ages are educated around the cause of cervical cancer and their risk of HPV. Responses from women questioned in our research were worrying with some citing they had been 'celibate' for several years and therefore did not consider themselves to be at risk. We must remind all women that HPV is very common and can lie dormant for very long periods of time and that the best way of reducing one's risk of cervical cancer is to attend screening promptly while eligible."

Factfile

Most cases of cervical cancer are thought to be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is spread during sexual intercourse. Women in Northern Ireland aged between 25 and 49 years are offered a cervical smear every three years. Women aged between 50 and 64 are offered screening every five years. Regular screening will pick up abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous.

Disease doesn't discriminate on age

Cancer survivor Michelle Roe (40) from Newtownabbey believes it is vital that women receive cervical screening regardless of age. She says:

When I was in my 20s I had a painful experience having a smear and because of that I'd put it off. I had been experiencing a tiny amount of bleeding after sex and a bit of lower back pain, but I put this to the back of my mind dismissing it as normal.

It was only when I visited my doctor for a skin concern that she noticed I was overdue a screening. I finally went to the doctor in early 2010. They told me it was probably nothing to worry about and just a symptom of my age. When it didn't stop I went back and a nurse asked me when I last had a smear. I was scared but it wasn't as bad as I had built up in my mind.

The results were borderline. I had it repeated six months later was told I had advanced cervical cancer. Two days before I had been diagnosed with melonoma-skin cancer in April 2011.

I then went through multiple operations including a hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

It was a hard time and the chemo made me really sick.

I've suffered bowel and bladder damage, infertility, lymphoedema (chronic swelling of the tissues) and I have gone through the menopause. My son Luke was 12 at the time and daughter Rachael was nine.

My husband Martin was very supportive. My own mother had abnormal smears two years ago and she is 68 now and had laser treatment. If that hadn't been dealt with at the time she would have cervical cancer. This disease does not discriminate against age.

Statisically, it is more common for women in their 30s, but any woman could be diagnosed. They are being checked for cells before they become cancer. If they act now the test could prevent it. It is so important women realise that.

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