A report out in the British Medical Journal suggests that awareness of the disease among older women is poor. Current guidelines mean that the upper limit for routine screening is 65 with the lower limit at 25. 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year with around 300,000 women finding out that they have a cervical abnormality every year.
For women who fall outside the screening age groups, there is a misconception in relation to the risks of developing the disease.
At the lower end of the age group there have been some tragic cases where women present early to their GP but have been dismissed, only to be diagnosed much later with a poorer prognosis. In the under 25s late diagnosis may lead to loss of fertility and a much poorer prognosis.
The reason for limiting the start of routine screening to over 25s is because in the younger age group, testing results in too many false positives and if abnormal cells are found the treatment given often leads to risks later like pre term labour. As many women will recover from abnormal changes without treatment, overall the benefits outweigh the risks. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends that screening should not start until age 25 and the UK National Screening Committee advised the NHS Cervical Screening Programme in 2012 that screening under the age of 25 usually does more harm than good.
This cut off point means that under-25s are not eligible for cervical cancer screening and it can be difficult for someone with unusual symptoms in this age group to seek further tests and investigations.
At the other end of the age group 20% of new diagnoses are in women over the age of 65. Although those who attended for regular testing in the years leading up to 65 are generally at a lower risk of developing the disease, those who have not been screened over this period are at higher risk. By the age of 60-64, just 72% of women in England in 2013 had been screened in the previous 5 years.
While deaths from cervical cancer were 7 in under 25s during 2010-2012, it was significantly higher over the same period for women in the over 65 age group at 449.
Campaigners now want greater awareness that this is a disease which can affect women of all ages and that they should not be put off attending their GP because they fall outside the screening age limits.
If you, or someone you know, has been affected by a doctor’s delay in diagnosing and treating cancer, speak to our specialist clinical negligence team on 0345 209 1055 or (Marguarita.Tyne@clarkewillmott.com).