Australia

Australians 'too embarrassed' to get cervical cancer test and Indigenous women at high risk

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Olympic athlete-turned-doctor Jana Pittman is on a mission to help end cervical cancer in Australia, as new research shows women feel too uncomfortable to get potentially life-saving screening.

Health has always been a priority in former Olympic athlete Jana Pittman's life. 

The 400m runner and hurdler trained at the highest level and won gold medals at the world championships and Commonwealth Games between 2002 and 2007, before beginning a career in medicine in 2013. 

But a cervical cancer scare almost robbed her of the chance to have more children.

Jana Pittman
Champion hurdler Jana Pittman says she went almost 10 years without a pap smear test.
SBS

Doctors diagnosed her with grade three cervical dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition, while she was undergoing IVF treatment in 2015.

"I unfortunately had been one of those people who’d avoided Pap smears for about 10 years," she told SBS News. 

"I was busy racing all over the world and I think my awareness of how important screening tests were, wasn’t there yet."

Former Australian Olympic athlete Jana Pittman is set to become a doctor.
Former Australian Olympic athlete Jana Pittman is set to become a doctor.
Supplied

Pittman's comments come as research by the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation released on Thursday found a third of women put off having a cervical screening because it's "awkward", while a quarter are "embarrassed".

Ten per cent are concerned they aren't "normal down there", while 8 per cent are concerned they might smell or aren't groomed appropriately.

The research was released as part of the foundation's cerFIX2035 campaign aimed at Australia eradicating cervical cancer by 2035, becoming the first country to do so. 

"Eradication is within our grasp - that is a truly exciting and achievable proposition," the foundation's CEO Joe Tooma said in a statement.

Pittman says she is lucky her biopsy results eventually came back clear, meaning she wouldn't need to have her cervix surgically removed. But the experience rattled the now mother-of-three, who is set to graduate as a doctor in western Sydney this year.

She says her new career goal is to specialise in gynecology - and help put an end to cervical cancer deaths in Australia.

"It's one of the most preventable cancers in the world with regular screenings," she says.

"Those five minutes of discomfort could save your life."

Indigenous women at greater risk

The Cancer Council estimates 951 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia in 2019 alone - with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women four times as likely to die from the disease.

Previous studies also suggest participation in cervical screening is 18 per cent lower for Indigenous women than for non-Indigenous women - a statistic Pittman says needs to change.

Indigenous women are more likely to die from cervical cancer than other women.
Indigenous women are more likely to die from cervical cancer than other women.
Cancer Institute NSW

"There’s a lot of inter-generational trauma that they’re going through, and private women's business that we have to work with," she says.

"We talk about equity in medicine and ensuring everyone has equal access and they simply don’t have it because we are not targeting them in an effective way."

There’s a lot of inter-generational trauma that they’re going through, and private women's business that we have to work with. 

- Jana Pittman

In 2017, the government introduced a free five-yearly HPV test for women aged between 25-74, replacing the two-yearly Pap smear test. 

For women who have not been vaccinated, screening tests can pick up strains of HPV early enough to be successfully treated before it develops into cancer. 

But doctors are concerned too many women are still going unchecked.

Other reasons the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation found women put off screening included it being painful exposing, or violating, while others said they were fearful about the procedure or didn't want a Male GP to do the test. 

“It’s important we continue to talk about screening and the value it provides to enable us to normalise the conversation, debunk common myths and most importantly, to encourage each other to attend," GP Ginni Mansberg said. 

"It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable – over 40 per cent of women tell us it is – that’s why it’s important to talk to family and friends who have been through it, to better understand what to expect."

Migrants missing out on vaccine

The Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation wants to see screening rates increase from 50 per cent to at least 70 per cent.

But health experts say there is another barrier - new migrants coming into the country who may not have attended secondary school in Australia, will have missed out on the vaccination program. 

Adele Murdolo, executive director of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health in Melbourne, believes young people should be vaccinated as soon as they enter Australia to protect themselves and others from infection. 

"There is a gap in the vaccination program because 80 per cent of people from migrant and refugee communities arrive in Australia after their secondary school is completed," she said. 

"Unless of course, that exists in their country of origin and that's a possibility but I would say most people would not have had access to that vaccination when they arrive in Australia."

More information about the screening test can be found at cancerscreening.gov.au/cervical or by calling 13 15 56

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