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Three quarters of sexual violence survivors feel unable to go for potentially life-saving test

31 Aug 2018

New research from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has found three quarters (72%) of women who have experienced sexual violence have not attended or have delayed cervical screening (smear test) because of their experience.

One in five women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. Over half (61%) of those surveyed said there was no support to help them prepare for the potentially life-saving test. Lack of understanding or sensitivity among health professionals was highlighted by many as a barrier to attending.

New resources being launched by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Rape Crisis England & Wales aim to provide support and information for survivors who want to take up their invitation and increase understanding among health professionals of sexual violence as a barrier to the test.

Smear tests provide the best protection against cervical cancer, yet in England alone uptake is currently at a 20-year low. For survivors of sexual violence, intimate medical examinations such as smear tests can be a source of trauma or distress. They may feel forced or pressured to disclose their experiences and the examination itself can trigger a whole host of distressing physical and emotional responses.

The new resources aim to improve understanding among health professionals of how a survivor might feel about attending and how the test can be triggering for some. They explain how a survivor might react, ways to make the test more accommodating for a survivor’s needs and how to provide appropriate support.

For survivors, there is information on adjustments they can ask for that might make a smear test a more positive experience, and importantly acknowledgement and reassurance that any reaction or feelings towards the test are common and nothing to feel ashamed of or embarrassed by.

Further findings from the survey include:

  • 91% want healthcare professionals to have more information to improve their understanding of cervical screening for survivors
  • 86% of survivors want specific information about going for a smear test after having experienced sexual violence 
  • 33% say they would benefit from having a card to show a doctor or nurse which explains their experience without having to talk about it 

 Imogen Pinnell, Health Information Manager at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said:

“Cervical screening provides the best protection against cervical cancer and we want every woman who wants to take up their invitation to feel able to do so. We’re delighted to have partnered with Rape Crisis England & Wales on resources which we hope will provide survivors with much needed support.

One in five women will sadly experience sexual violence in their life and it is important that healthcare professionals understand the profound impact this can have on women and feel comfortable supporting those affected.”

Katie Russell, for Rape Crisis England & Wales, said:

“Cervical screening is an inevitably intimate and invasive process and for some survivors it can trigger memories or even flashbacks to the sexual violence or abuse they've experienced. The thought or reality of going for a smear test can cause some survivors to fear they're not in full control of their body or situation and this can make them reluctant to access this vital health service. Survivors deserve the same right to important healthcare as everyone else.

This is why we’re pleased to be partnering with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to reduce the barriers to cervical screening some women face and ensure appropriate support is in place.”

Alice, who was diagnosed with abnormal cervical cells in 2017, said:

“It’s really positive to know there’s more support being made available to survivors like myself who find smear tests extremely difficult. A routine test found abnormal cells in my cervix and luckily meant they could be treated. If I hadn’t attended it could have been a different story. It is so important that health professionals feel able to handle the situation as sensitively as possible."