Shyness around a routine medical examination cost Maria Hughes her life, her sister believes.
The mother of three, from County Down, died from cervical cancer on her 38th birthday in 2014.
She was one of more than 100 women who died from the disease in Northern Ireland between 2013 and 2017.
The Public Health Authority (PHA) has strongly encouraged women to attend their smear test appointments to avoid “one of the few preventable cancers”.
Statistics released during cervical cancer prevention week – which runs from 20-26 January – show that between 2013 and 2017, an average of 83 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in Northern Ireland.
There were approximately 21 deaths in each of those years.
Nervous about screening
Dr Damien Bennett, consultant in public health medicine at the PHA, said worries about the test, and subsequent results, put some women off attending.
He said eight out of 10 cervical cancers could be prevented in a “well-screened” population.
He added that it takes just a few minutes to test for the disease, which is one of the few “preventable” cancers.
“It is important for women to accept their invitation for the screening test – it could save your life.”
This is a message that Michelle Hughes wished her sister Maria had heeded.
Michelle said a mixture of “shyness and embarrassment” about the test meant her sister ignored calls to attend routine screening.
She said she unsuccessfully tried to persuade her younger sister to attend.
“I knew screening was important so I nagged her to go but she was shy and afraid and put it off. Sadly I now know that it could have been lifesaving,” she said.
Michelle said her sister was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer in 2011 after developing irregular bleeding. She died three years later.
“Her death devastated our family. We try to get away from the sadness but we can’t,” she said.
“She would have turned 43 on New Year’s eve but instead it was the fifth anniversary of her death.”
Maria, who was hospitalised for eight months during her illness, posted messages online from her hospital bed warning other young women to get checked.
Michelle said she wanted to maintain her sister’s campaign.
“I still want to spread the word because Maria’s death was such a waste,” she said.
“I don’t want just one person to go for their smear test after reading this, I want several people to do it,” she said.
“Maria was told the cancer would have been detected much earlier if she had been for a smear.
“I am a bit angry at her when a simple test might have avoided all this pain.
“I couldn’t save my sister but I hope this message gives somebody else a chance.”
What is cervical cancer screening?
- Cervical screening aims to prevent cervical cancer from developing
- It is often called a “smear test” and checks the cells from the cervix, the lower part of the womb
- In Northern Ireland, cervical screening is offered to women aged 25-64
- Women will be automatically invited every three years if they are aged 25-49, and every five years between the ages of 50-64
- There is also a vaccine available that helps protect girls against cervical cancer
- In Northern Ireland all girls and boys in Year 9 are offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in school
- The HPV vaccine helps protect against two types of the virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer (70%)
- Women of any age who are concerned about symptoms such as abnormal bleeding, or pain or discomfort in the lower pelvis, should seek advice from their GP, even if they attend regularly for screening