Why Do Woman Get Cervical Cancer Despite Smear Tests?

Woman alone looking at sea

**UPDATED NOVEMBER 2018** News has broken today that thousands of women have been caught up in a cervical cancer screening error made between January and June 2018, when letters relating to screening results and requesting the booking of smear tests were not sent out. To read more visit the BBC.

Cervical screening began in the 1980s and has been a real NHS success story by reducing the number of women developing cervical cancer. The number of women diagnosed with the condition has been falling by 7% per year, and there are now only just over 3,000 new cases each year – most of which will survive.

However it is not unusual to come across woman with the condition despite having undergone regular smear tests.

Even the best cytologists (people who look at the smear results under a microscope) will sometimes give ‘false negative’ reports. At times the particular cells seen show no abnormalities although there may be cancer or pre-cancer cells elsewhere. In older types of smear tests only abnormalities were only seen half the time. With better techniques the risk of false negative reports is now only around 20%.

The fact that screening should be so good means that if a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer and has had regular smear tests in the previous years there may well have been a mistake in interpreting the smear results. Given that cervical cancer often develops very slowly there may be a period as long as 10 years during which smears should have shown pre-cancer.

One woman developed cervical cancer despite regular smear tests. When she made a claim for damages, an expert looking at the smears realised not just one but several had been misinterpreted. The smears in fact showed abnormal cells years earlier. At this stage the cells would have not yet have been cancerous. They would have been a pre-malignant ‘CIN’ lesion. Her treatment would have been easier. She would not have had to have chemoradiotherapy. Chemoradiotherapy can cause unpleasant symptoms and she lost some control of her bladder and bowel in a condition called radiation proctitis. She should have had a 80-85% likelihood of surviving her cancer. As it was the outlook was poor.

This is not an unusual story. Acting for people like her, it is surprising quite how many similar stories there are. This suggests that cytologists are not always getting it right. It also suggests they may need better systems for checking and reviewing their results.

Enable Law’s specialist lawyers understand the difficulties of living with cancer and can assist with complex claims arising from medical mistakes. Speak to them today on 0800 044 8488 for a free, confidential discussion about your claim.

Paul Sankey is a partner in the Medical Negligence team at Enable Law. Paul regularly blogs here about Medical Negligence issues and legal and medical developments, and can be found on Twitter as @pauljsankey