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What do women who are overdue for cervical screening know about the risk factors for cancer?

JoWaller21 May 2019

Authors: Mairead Ryan, Laura Marlow and Jo Waller

Attending cervical screening between 25-64 years (every 3 or 5 years depending on age) means abnormal cells on the cervix can be picked up and treated before they develop into cancer. In the UK, about 3,100 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and 850 die of the disease. This number could be reduced if more women were up-to-date with screening, but the proportion of women who are overdue for screening is increasing every year, across all age groups.

To make an informed choice about participation in screening, it’s important that women understand the things that increase their chances of developing cervical cancer. In particular, they need to know that their risk is higher if they don’t go for screening. In our study, just published in Preventive Medicine , we surveyed women aged 25-64 (793 participants) who were either i) overdue for screening or ii) did not intend to go for screening when next invited. The aim of the study was to assess whether women who decline screening are making this decision based on a good understanding of cervical cancer risk factors. We asked women to say whether they thought that certain risk factors could increase a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer. All eight risk factors that we showed are known to increase cervical cancer risk, so women with good knowledge should have selected them all.


We found that many women had low awareness. Only just over half (57%) of the participants recognised that ‘not going for regular smear (Pap) tests’ may increase a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer and far fewer recognised ‘infection with HPV’ as a risk factor (29%). We also found that women from non-white ethnic backgrounds were less aware that not going for regular screening could increase their risk of cervical cancer, compared with white British/Irish women.

These findings suggest that many women are not making informed choices about screening. All women included in our survey should have been sent educational leaflets about cervical screening, but as our previous research in bowel screening shows, women may not be reading these or remembering their content. Further public health action is needed to explore effective communication methods, including non-leaflet approaches, to ensure that all women are making an informed decision about cervical screening (non-)participation.

Unpicking the differences between types of cervical screening non-attenders

LauraMarlow21 March 2018

Every year around 28% of women who are eligible for cervical screening do not attend as recommended. Last year we blogged about a paper we had published exploring how these women can be divided into five broad sub-types; 1) unaware of screening, 2) unengaged with screening, 3) undecided about whether to go for screening, 4) decided not to go for screening and 5) decided to go but not yet gone. We also found some patterns in the way these different non-attender types are distributed across different groups of the population. For example, we found that women from ethnic minority groups were more likely to be unaware of screening and older women were more likely to have decided not to go. Understanding these patterns will help us to decide how interventions might be shaped differently for different types of non-attenders. For example, since women from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be unaware of cancer screening, targeted public health campaigns aimed at raising awareness within ethnic minority communities could be beneficial.

More recently, we have been delving a bit deeper and have tried to unpick some of the psychological and behavioural differences between the most common non-attender groups. Published in the journal Preventive Medicine this week, our new work shows some interesting findings. Most notably we showed that women who are unaware of screening tend to be more fatalistic, both about life in general and about cancer. They also have more negative beliefs about cancer outcomes. Women who had decided not to be screened frequently perceived themselves to be at lower risk of cervical cancer. And for women who were unengaged with screening, both more fatalistic beliefs and lower perceived risk were relevant. Health behaviours also varied between the different groups, with unaware women less likely to have seen a GP recently, and unengaged women less likely to seek out health information and more likely to actively avoid cancer information in the media.

This work will help us to identify the content of the messages that we might use for specific types of non-attenders. Interventions to raise awareness of screening should include messages that address fatalistic and negative beliefs about cancer. By contrast, information for women who have decided not to be screened may need to ensure they have an accurate knowledge of their risk of cervical cancer and that they understand the benefits of screening. This will help make sure women who decide not to take part are making an informed choice. Our next step it to outline what these interventions might look like – watch this space!