New research from Target Ovarian Cancer and YouGov reveals that 1 in 5 women mistakenly believe a smear test can detect ovarian cancer, indicating that around 5 million women in the UK are not correctly informed about the purpose of their health screenings.
That figure increases to 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-24 - the next wave of women to be invited for a smear test. With smear test attendance rates at an all-time low, it makes sense that women may not be going along because they don't properly understand the purpose.
Smear tests - or cervical screenings - detect the early stages of cervical cancer. Not ovarian cancer.
For anyone who needs to rewind to year 9 biology for a second, the ovaries and the cervix are two very different parts of the female reproductive system. The ovaries are small, oval-shaped organs located in the pelvis which produce our eggs. The cervix is the narrow passage of tissue located at the bottom of the uterus, connecting the vagina and the womb.
All straight on that? Here's how a smear test works, and why it has absolutely nothing to do with the ovaries or the detection of ovarian cancer.
During a cervical screening, the medical expert will insert a speculum into your vagina, which - for want of a better term - clamps it open while they take a little toothbrush-type-utensil and brush it on your cervix to retrieve some cells. Despite this sounding horrifically unpleasant, it actually doesn't hurt, and is only a little uncomfortable for the approximate 40 seconds it lasts.
The cells from your cervix are then assessed, and if there are any unusual changes detected, which may indicate pre-cancerous cells, further medical investigation will be carried out.
Smear tests are incredibly useful for detecting cervical cancer, especially in its early stages. But it's also vital for women to pay attention to their bodies, noticing any unusual symptoms which might indicate when something is wrong. For ovarian cancer, there is not preventative screening. We rely on this awareness as the sole means of detecting cancer of the ovaries.
With that in mind, here are the symptoms you need to be aware of for both cervical and ovarian cancer.
- Persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)
- Loss of appetite/feeling full quickly
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual
- Changes to bowel habit (eg diarrhoea or constipation)
- Extreme fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abnormal bleeding: during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse
- Lower back pain
To find out more information about ovarian cancer, visit the Target Ovarian Cancer website. To find out more information about cervical cancer, visit the Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust website.
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