Fake news putting 50,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual women at risk of cancer

The common belief that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) women are not at risk of cervical cancer is fake news that has created a dangerous screening gap, the NHS has warned today.

Up to 50,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual women have never been for a cervical cancer screening test because they wrongly think they are not at risk.

However, any sexual activity can pass on the virus which causes the vast majority of cervical cancers, Dr Michael Brady warned.

Analysis of data from the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Foundation has revealed that nearly one in five – 19% – of LGB women who are eligible for cervical screening has never been to an appointment.

Speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine’s ‘Pride in Medicine’ event later today (Saturday), NHS national advisor for LGBT health Dr Brady will say the figures are “a major concern”, and will urge everyone who is eligible to come forward and get screened.

An estimated four out of five cases of cervical cancer, 83%, could be prevented if everyone attended regular screenings.

The NHS Long Term Plan sets out action to tackle major killers like cancer and a renewed focus on prevention.

Charities have previously warned of the common misconception that women who have sex with women do not need to be screened, even though the virus that causes cervical cancer is passed on through any type of sexual activity.

Dr Michael Brady said: “Pride Week is an opportunity to give a platform to the issues facing LGBT people, and little is more important than ensuring everyone has the information and services they need to stay healthy and avoid major illness.

“The misleading information that gay and bisexual women aren’t at risk of this disease is one of the most dangerous myths around, because it has created a screening gap for thousands, which is a major concern for our community.

“Let’s be clear: cancer does not discriminate. If you’ve got a cervix, you can get cervical cancer, and as cervical cancer is preventable people should take up their regular screening appointments.

“We also know that NHS screening services need to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual trans and non-binary people, and I’m delighted to have been asked to help the NHS address these issues and more.”

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that affects the mouth, throat and genital area, and most people get some form of it in their lifetime.

HPV is passed on through any type of sexual activity, meaning that anyone who is sexually active could contract the virus.

Cervical screening and HPV testing is the best way to prevent cervical cancer, but too many people who are eligible are not taking up the offer.

Professor Anne Mackie, Public Health England Director of screening said: “Some people may believe they are not at risk of cervical cancer and don’t need screening because they don’t have sex with men, but women who have sex with women can still get HPV during sex. So we encourage anyone with a cervix, between the ages of 25 and 64, to go for regular cervical screening.”

Robert Music, Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said: “Cervical cancer can affect anyone born with a cervix, regardless of gender or sexual identity. Addressing harmful myths, such as cervical screening being less important for the LGBT community must be urgently addressed. Cervical screening can be a difficult test for many reasons and we must be focused on removing the barriers that exist and ensuring every eligible person fully understands what cervical screening is for, knows where to access support and feels able to take up their invitation if they wish to do so.”

Seema Kennedy, Public Health Minister said: “No woman’s life should be put at risk because of myths and misinformation. Anyone with a cervix may be at risk of cervical cancer and regular and effective screening is the only way to protect against it. This Pride – I strongly urge women from LGBT communities to go and have their cervical screening if they have not already – it could save your life. Improving cancer detection and diagnosis is a major priority for our Long Term Plan for the NHS and the Prime Minister announced in October how the plan will radically overhaul screening programmes to save even more lives.”

NHS England is rolling out a new HPV testing process into cervical screening services by 2020, which is more sensitive and reliable than the current process and could prevent around 600 additional cancers a year.

As part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambition to save thousands more lives a year from the major killer conditions, NHS England has also asked Professor Sir Mike Richards to review cancer screening programmes and make recommendations on the areas that need to be improved, including driving screening uptake among all who need it.