What’s consent got to do with cervical cancer? More than you might think.
Cervical cancer affects more than 3,000 people in the UK each year. If it’s caught early, it’s usually survivable. But 1 in 4 people with a cervix don’t show up to their cervical screening, which is the test that shows if someone is at risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical screening saves lives. But for many people with a cervix, going to a screening doesn’t feel safe.
If I hadn’t found a My Body Back clinic, I probably wouldn’t have gone either. My Body Back runs clinics in England and Scotland for women and trans men who have experienced sexual violence, where women who have experienced sexual assault can get cervical screening, STI checks, and coil fittings and removals.
For anyone with a cervix, a cervical screening can be unpleasant. But for the 1 in 5 women who’ve experienced some kind of sexual assault, it can be particularly difficult. The examination may bring back memories of your assault. It can bring up trauma, anxiety, pain, and not feeling in control of your body.
Research by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, in partnership with Rape Crisis and My Body Back Project, found that nearly half of survivors do not attend cervical screening tests as a direct result of their experience. Another quarter of the 131 survivors they surveyed said they've put off going for their test for the same reason, while only 15% regularly attend when they're invited. That's a staggering number of people who aren't getting potentially life-saving healthcare.
I was worried. I know how important cervical screenings are. I know they save lives. But would I be able to get through the examination?
Here's what happened.
My cervical screening at My Body Back
Before my appointment, the My Body Back team emailed me some helpful tips.They told me I could cover myself up with my favourite jumper, ask my doctor not to use specific words, or listen to some soothing music.
On the day of the appointment, the all-female team welcomed me to a quiet, calm clinic. A friendly volunteer talked me through what was going to happen, and made it clear that I could do as much or as little of the screening as I felt comfortable with.
At every point, they asked me what would help me to feel safe, calm and in control. A psychologist was with me throughout the screening, and she helped me communicate with the doctor so that nothing happened without my consent. “It’s not happening to you, we’re doing this together” said the doctor. “It’s a collaboration and nothing will happen that you don’t want to happen” said the psychologist.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go through with my cervical screening. Not only did I go through with it, but I walked out feeling happy and relaxed.
It’s brilliant that my Body Back exists, but it’s only funded to deliver its clinics in London and Glasgow, and just once a month. That's not enough.
Feeling safe is not a luxury, and a postcode lottery shouldn't dictate who can access this kind of care.The NHS must do better. We need to see trauma-informed care rolled out across the UK, so that anyone, anywhere can take control of their health.
How many people with a cervix are missing out on potentially life-saving screenings, because they can’t find a clinic that makes them feel safe?
- Find out more about My Body Back Project
- Learn more about cervical screening from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust
15- 19 June is National Cervical Screening Awareness week.