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‘What if I’m dying?’: Woman tells of anxious seven month wait for hospital appointment to find out if she’s at risk of cervical cancer

Journalist Louise Glen was anxious about her abnormal smear test results.
Journalist Louise Glen was anxious about her abnormal smear test results.

A north mum-of-two has told of her “awful” seven-month wait for a hospital appointment, fearing the worst after an abnormal smear test.

Louise Glen was initially told her colposcopy appointment would be within eight weeks, after her smear test in July.

The 50-year-old had been referred to the hospital for the procedure after HPV, a virus that can cause cervical cancer, was detected for the second time.

During a colposcopy, a special magnifying instrument is used to get a closer look at cells in the cervix. It typically takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Louise, of Oban, then received a letter two days later to let her know there would be a 30-week wait for her appointment instead.

This is despite government guidelines being in place to prevent patients waiting longer than two months.

‘It’s a long time to worry’

Louise, who works as a journalist, said she had an anxious seven-month for the hospital appointment fearing she may have cancer.

“It’s awful because you just don’t know,” she said.

“It’s outside the time that the government has set as a standard for us being treated and, secondly, it was a longer period to worry that something was wrong.”

Louise was first told HPV had been detected when she got the results from a smear test in January 2020.

Smear tests are one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.

She was told she needed to attend annual appointments with her GP so she could continue to be monitored.

“Because I’d had that odd smear before, I was anxious – I was alert to the fact that there might be something wrong,” she explained.

Louise was even more concerned when the results from her next appointment in July 2021 also came back abnormal.

She was then referred to the hospital for the colposcopy procedure.

‘I’m thinking I could die’

During Louise’s long wait, Scottish comedian Janey Godley, 60, revealed in December last year that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and urged other women not to ignore symptoms.

“For me, it really heightened my anxiety,” Louise said. “I’m thinking I could die.”

Louise contacted Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands Donald Cameron to ask if he could help.

She is an NHS Highland patient but needed to attend a hospital in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s area because she lives in Oban.

Following the politician’s intervention she was given an appointment soon afterwards, and attended the hospital in Greenock on January 11.

“The appointment lasted 15 minutes and I was given the all-clear,” she said. “I was told to return for a smear in 12 months’ time.”

‘There’s a lack of kindness’

Louise has been left angry about the way women with abnormal smear results are treated and hopes changes will be made to the system.

She highlighted how it would be helpful if patients could be given some reassurance while waiting for hospital appointments rather than just being sent a standard letter.

“I wasn’t just angry for me; I was angry for every single woman who came across the same diagnosis and didn’t know how to deal with it,” she said.

“There seems to be a lack of kindness in the way people who have frightening information about their health are treated.

“If it had been eight weeks it would be OK, but the fact they changed it to 30 weeks without showing any kindness in the way I was given that information is unfair.

“All it would take is for someone to spend just five minutes on the phone, or even send an email where you have some interaction with another person.”

Louise Glen wants women to know they can ask questions about their results.

Smear test results: Women should know they can ask questions

Louise managed to get some reassurance during the long wait through calling the nurse at her GP practice to ask for more information about her smear test results.

She was told she was a borderline case as an issue with a small number of cells had been detected.

“What I really want to do is let other women know that they can ask questions,” she said.

“They shouldn’t feel that they just have to accept what’s in the letter to them. They can actually go back and ask their nursing team or their GP for more information about it.

“There is support out there. I’ve found speaking to other women who’ve been through the situation has been helpful as well.

“Women should not have to receive that faceless letter and think ‘what if I’m dying’ – that’s just terrible.”

‘It’s causing patients distress’

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron has written to Health Secretary Humza Yousaf calling for action to be taken to speed up waiting times for patients with abnormal smear test results.

He said: “While we all appreciate the NHS has been put under severe pressure by the Covid pandemic, this is unacceptable.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

“Quite apart from the distress it is causing to people who are understandably worried after they receive their results, we have to remember that the whole point of smear tests is to be able to identify and deal with possible cancers as early as possible.”

What has been done to reduce waiting times?

The Scottish Government highlighted that there was a waiting time guarantee in place to ensure patients got proper access to services.

Waiting times for a colposcopy depend on the severity of cell changes and no patient should wait longer than eight weeks for an appointment.

A spokeswoman said: “Excessively long waits are not acceptable.

“While we cannot comment on individual patients we are clear that health boards must prioritise patients who are referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer and ensure they are seen within the waiting time guarantee.”

She added that more than £1 million pounds has been invested into health boards over the past two years to reduce colposcopy service waiting times.

An NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde spokesman said waiting times were longer than they should be due to Covid-19 and an increase in cases referred to hospital.

He said: “We very much regret we have longer than usual waiting times for routine colposcopy assessment following screening and we apologise to this patient for any additional anxiety or distress this has caused them.

“We can confirm the current waiting time for a routine assessment is 32 weeks. Urgent assessments continue to be completed within two weeks.

“As part of our remobilisation plan, we are reviewing the number of doctors who undertake assessments, the number of clinics we run, and patients seen per clinic.

“Additionally we are currently reviewing how we connect with patients while they await assessment in order to reduce any anxiety caused by appointment letters.”

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