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'I Had No Symptoms But There Was A Tumour Growing Inside Me'

Almost a third of Australian women are putting off a potentially life-saving cervical cancer screening because they're embarrassed or feel awkward, new research has found.

Experts are concerned because cervical cancer usually shows no symptoms until it spreads, meaning that by the time it is detected, it is usually "too late to treat".

Australia is on the precipice of eradicating cervical cancer entirely, but it still kills around 250 women each year.

This new research, from the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation, paints a concerning picture of women ( including trans men and non-binary people) putting their safety at risk for reasons of discomfort.

From a representative sample of 1,005 women, more than a quarter (27.6 percent) are putting off a screening because they're embarrassed, while one third (32.2 percent) are doing so because it's awkward.

Many had concerns they aren't "normal down there", that their vagina might "smell", or that they aren't "groomed properly".

cervical screening test
Women are putting off a life-saving procedure because they're embarrassed or awkward. Photo: Getty.

It also revealed that many Australians are still confused about what a cervical screening test (CST), which replaced the pap smear at the end of 2017, actually screens for.

Shockingly, almost three-quarters of women surveyed wrongly think that the CST tests directly for cervical cancer and about a third believe that it tests for ovarian cancer.

In fact, the CST tests for human papillomavirus  (HPV), a common infection that can cause cervical cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer.

"In the old days, we look for abnormal cells or pre-cancerous cells," Professor Ian Frazer AC, an immunologist at the University of Queensland whose work led to the development of the HPV vaccine, told 10 daily.

"Now, we look for the virus that causes the cancer."

vaccine
The HPV vaccine protects against nine HPV types, which cause around 90 percent of cervical cancer. Photo: Getty.

Australia is just 15 years away from eliminating cervical cancer, he said, with total eradication expected sometime this century. But there are still plenty of women -- particularly older women who didn't get vaccinated -- who carry the virus.

Particularly during this transition from a two-year test to a five-year test, it's key that women have their CST during the two-year window, as cervical cancer in the early states is largely symptomless.

READ MORE: Why A Routine Trip To The GP Leaves Me Mentally And Emotionally Shaken

"That's the problem with cervical cancer," Frazer said.

"The cervical cancer grows locally, and really causes very few symptoms until it spreads outside of the tissue where it started.

"If we catch it early if it's not yet a cancer and there are abnormal cells, or even if it is a cancer and it's only in the cervix, it can be easily treated. Once it spreads away from the cervix, then the symptoms start, but by that time, it's too late to treat it."

For cervical cancer survivor Heather Dunn, 34, the lack of symptoms is one of the scariest things about the disease.

Heather Dunn and her son, Henry. Photo: Supplied.

"I didn't have any symptoms, nothing to indicate there was an issue, and I had an actual tumour growing," she told 10 daily.

She had been eight months overdue for her screening, simply because she was busy being a new mum to her son, Henry.

When her gynaecologist sat her down to tell her she had cancer and would need major surgery, she thought her world was ending.

"I thought, oh my god, I'm going to die and not see my son grow up," she said.

READ MORE: Considering Using IVF To Have A Baby? Here’s What You Need To Know

Thankfully, the cancer hadn't spread. It took a gruelling five-hour operation to remove the cancer, and two "agonising" years of monthly check-ups, but she was eventually given the all-clear.

These days, she talks to friends and family "all the time" about screenings, and says it's crucial we overcome issues of embarrassment or discomfort when it comes to health.

"I get that there could be issues, but you just have to do it, because it can literally save your life," she said.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au