Women under 25 can ignore signs of the disease for more than three months, research shows
Young women with symptoms of cervical cancer often delay getting checked for several months, risking the disease spreading by the time it is treated, research shows.
Women under 25 can ignore signs of the disease for more than three months. Some do not realise the symptoms are a sign of something serious, others are embarrassed and some others do not want to waste their GP's time.
Some hold off doing anything about signs such as bleeding and abdominal pain because they are worried they may not be able to see a female family doctor.
The findings, published in the British Journal of Medical Practice, renew concern that women are not taking cervical cancer seriously enough, even though it is the most common form of cancer in women under 35 and claims almost 1,000 lives a year. There is also concern that declining numbers of women are having regular smear tests.
The study of 128 women under 30 with cervical cancer, led by Anita Lim from Queen Mary University of London, also found that in some cases diagnosis is delayed either in GP surgeries or hospitals.
"Young females with cervical cancer frequently delay presentation, and not recognising symptoms as serious may increase the risk of delay," the researchers said. Seeking attention earlier would improve their outcomes, they added.
Of the 40 women whose cervical cancer was diagnosed when they saw a doctor because of their symptoms, rather than because they had had a smear test, 11 (28%) had delayed seeking help and 24 (60%) experienced delays by the NHS. Under-25s are more likely to delay seeking help than women over 25, the study found.
The results are worrying because Britain's five-year survival rate for the disease, at 67%, is worse than that in other European countries, with late diagnosis a key factor.
In England women aged 25 to 64 are invited for smear tests, while in Scotland screening starts at 20. Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said cervical screening was one of the NHS's success stories and was very effective at detecting problems at an early stage.
Family doctors are striving to improve screening, for example by checking that eligible women are up to date with their smear tests. Baker said women should ask for a female GP or practice nurse to conduct the test if they feel more comfortable with that.
Fiona Osgun, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said women should be aware of and look out for the signs of cervical cancer. "It can be easy to dismiss symptoms as minor, but this research highlights how important it is to know what's normal for you and to always get any changes that don't go away checked out by your GP."
Some women may worry about wasting their GP's time. Photograph: Dmitriy Shironosov/Alamy