Woman calls for smear test changes after cancer missed by four doctors

An NHS hospital ward

An NHS hospital ward - Credit: PA

A businesswoman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer, despite a clear smear test, wants to raise awareness about what cervical screenings test for. 

Selina, a business owner from Islington, argues that language about smear testing is “misleading”, and that it is often not made clear what is being tested and what the result means. 

She was diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer in July 2021, which had been missed by four doctors, as well as a smear test. 

She said: “Every single one of those doctors missed the cervical cancer because the first question you get asked is have you had a smear test, and if you say yes then they tick the box and assume the cervix is fine. 

“But smear tests do not test for cervical cancer, they only test for an HPV virus, which I find diabolical.” 

Research by The Eve Appeal, a gynaecological cancer research charity, earlier this year found that 65 per cent of women incorrectly believe that smear tests are used to diagnose cervical cancer, when in reality they test for human papillomavirus (HPV). 

Karen Hobbs, cancer information officer at The Eve Appeal, said: “Regardless of when your last cervical screening test was, and regardless of the result, if you have any cervical cancer symptoms, please speak to your GP.” 

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If you do not carry HPV, you are placed into a low-risk category and receive a letter giving you the all clear.

Selina, from Islington, says the wording of these letters should be changed to accurately inform people what test has been carried out and what the result means. 

She said: “The letter you receive after your smear needs to be transparent. It needs to state that only the HPV test has been carried out, what HPV strains have been tested for, what that result actually means and what you can do if you have further symptoms.” 

It was when Selina was referred to have a second fibroid removed that a doctor finally raised the possibility that she might have cervical cancer. 

She said: “Because I’d had four doctors, with cameras, investigating the problem for over a year, I'd thought it impossible. 

“Two weeks before, a report from the doctor said that my cervix was normal, so when they came back to me saying it was cervical cancer, I said it was impossible.” 

Selina was in the very small percentage of people whose cervical cancer was not caused by an HPV infection and so smear tests were not able to pick it up. 

When she went to get a second opinion on the cancer diagnosis, the doctor told her that it was very unlikely that the cancer wasn’t already there in 2019 when she had the test. 

“That’s what upset me the most,” she said. 

“It would be ideal if they could carry out both tests at the same time, HPV for the preventative measure and the cytology test to ensure they provide adequate screening for 100pc of people.” 

Kate Sanger, head of policy and communications at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said cytology testing is less effective than testing for HPV, since it involves taking a sample of cells from just one part of the cervix which might not be the area where cancerous cells are present.  

She said: “We’re guided by the evidence and the evidence shows that testing for HPV first is a much more effective way of identifying those who are at a greater risk of cervical cancer.” 

After her diagnosis, Selina had an operation to remove the ovarian tissue and went through several weeks of radiotherapy. 

Whilst she hopes that this has managed to get rid of the cancer, she is still suffering from horrible side-effects and she will now never be able to carry her own children. 

Although thousands of people are prevented from developing cervical cancer each year in the UK due to cervical screening, Selina is not alone in her experience of developing cancer despite a clear smear. 

Earlier this month, the Mirror reported the story of Leah Herrington, 32, of Newcastle-under-Lyme, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in June and, like Selina, was repeatedly told that she did not have cervical cancer because of her age and the fact that she had a clear smear. 

Earlier this year, the Sun reported on mum-of-three Donna Bradbury, 37, who was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer after three clear smear tests.  

Selina’s has started a petition calling for more clarity about what cervical screenings test for. It can be found at www.change.org/smeartesttruth