Today parliament will debate the tragic case of Sophie Jones, the 19-year-old Wirral teenager who lost her fight against Cervical Cancer in March.
The debate has been triggered by an online e-petition which accumulated the highest number of signatories since the inception of e-petitions in 2011 after Sophie’s case hit the headlines as she was denied a cervical screening test on the basis of her age.
The failures in Sophie’s case are now the subject of a serious case review from NHS England and it will be vital for both the Department for Health and General Practitioners to study the findings carefully so that we learn as much as we can about why the connection between Sophie’s symptoms and cancer of the cervix was not made. This will, hopefully, limit the possibility of a repeated medical performance in the future.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide and the 11th most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the UK, which amounts to around 3 in every 100,000 women.
There are on average, just short of 1,000 deaths from cervical cancer each year in the UK with three women every day diagnosed with the disease with almost 99% of all cases of cervical cancer caused by persistent high-risk Human Papilomoma Virus which 4 in every 5 sexually active women will be exposed to in their lifetime.
Screening has been a huge factor in the dramatic decrease in cervical cancer cases with an average 7% decrease is cervical cancer diagnoses in each year since screening was introduced in the 1980s. But this provision is only available to over 25 year olds despite cases such as Sophie’s which highlights the dangers that exist for young women and girls who contract cancerous cells on the cervix but who are not, I will argue, adequately protected in the current health system through advice, guidance and treatment.
Therefore, the national interest in this debate is considerable.
Over the course of my contribution in Parliament, I will explore copious aspects to the mismanagement of Sophie’s care which could have saved her life had she been given the right to choose to have a cervical screening test. I’ll argue that every woman, regardless of her age, should be given the right to a test after extensive consultation with her GP because I passionately believe in a woman’s right to choose.
In accepting that it is currently legal for a GP to exercise his or her power to give a patient presenting with cervical cancer symptoms a screening in exceptional circumstances, the reality for young girls and teenagers at present is that the vast majority of GPs remain unwilling to do so.
That is because the risk to a patient aged 18 to 24 is high. Premature birth, infertility, misdiagnosis and unnecessary treatments, are all reasons for why many GPs never resort to a cervical screening test, despite a patient’s expressed desire to do so.
Yet in a case such as Sophie’s it is hard to find a defence for why she did not qualify as an exceptional circumstance. Indeed by the time she did meet the criteria whereby doctors were satisfied that she should be given a smear, the cancer had spread to other parts of her body and it was too late.
Sophie’s story also highlights a deeper issue which politicians and the medical profession do not seem to have properly examined and that is the issue of young females attending a GP surgery to talk about period pains or suspected problems with their reproductive systems only to receive vague responses and disinterest from the medical staff.
In my research for today’s debate, I was alarmed at how many young women believe that GPs too readily dismiss their concerns in these areas, even before thorough medical histories or an account of all the symptoms is taken.
If a young women visits a GP with a pain like Sophie’s and is persistently told not to worry about it, is it any wonder that problems escalate? Women who are crippled for multiple days each month with excruciating period pains should be given treatment, not the brush off, by doctors. Too few young women appear to have the confidence in their GP to spot symptoms of cervical cancer which is why I believe so many have demanded the right to choose by calling for this debate.
Of course I am not saying that ever GP is negligent, but there are too many incidences of misdiagnosis or a feeling amongst young females that their issue is irreverent and to discuss it is still embarrassing and slightly taboo.
Today’s debate needs to go some way to breaking down the problems that still exists for young females and it needs to highlight to GPs that the onus is on them to properly familiarise themselves with the symptoms of cervical cancer in young females so that they are in a position to more accurately diagnoses each case that is presented to them.
This is not a call for an overhaul of age-restrictions and to universally roll out cervical screening for anyone and everyone who wants it. This is about giving women the right to choose and giving them the peace of mind to know that the option is there for them to exercise in exceptional circumstance and after rigorous consultation with their GP. Put differently, I want a situation whereby if a young girl of similar age to my daughters, were in Sophie’s situation, after months and months of pain, misdiagnosis and a lack of answers from a GP, the power to choose a screen test is a power that rests with the patient.
This debate will not bring Sophie back. It will not make up for the lost birthdays, graduations and memories with her friends and her family. Nor will it amend the fatal errors of judgment that clinicians showed to Sophie in her final months, but I am positive that through the dedication of the 320,000 campaigners she has left behind, this debate will go some way to ensuring that Sophie’s legacy is a lifesaving one for millions of young women in the future and I hope that her family can at least draw some comfort from that.