Today, I came of age. Where women of yesteryear descended a flight of stairs at their debutant ball, the modern day gal knows she’s a woman when she goes for her first smear test.
Because nothing quite says ‘adulting’ like having something shoved in your vagina in an unsatisfactory way and then being told to wait ten days for a text, right?
So yes, today I had my first smear test. Something that I should have done sooner, but something that I, like a lot of women, put off for a plethora of (in my case, nonsensical) reasons. Attendance for cervical smear tests are actually at the lowest they have been for 21 years, there are WAY too many of us missing our appointments so I wanted to take a bit of time to talk all things smear-test in the hope that it might encourage someone reading this to book theirs. (Yes, you there, I DO mean you. Yes I mean right now, come on, you can do it…)
I’ve actually been harping on about the importance of gynaecological health for YEARS, since long before I was even old enough to require a smear test (the NHS administer them for women over the age of 25, we’ll get onto why in a minute) and yet when that letter arrived, over a year ago, I folded it up and popped it behind the wine rack (a once thin space that is now bulging with “things I need to deal with”) and did nothing about it. Similarly when I received my first text reminder from my GP, I left it unopened. Same story with the second one.
Why? I don’t know.
I was a bit scared, I think. My mum had an abnormal result from a smear test when I was a teenager and that always gave me the heebie-jeebies. My grannie also had ovarian cancer. A totally different thing but still something that I am wary of whenever I start thinking too hard about my reproductive organs. I also had the marina coil fitted a few years ago; something that I LOVE and would defo recommend, that was a slightly horrifying process. (Read about that HERE and don’t be put off cos I’d still say, four years on, that it was totally worth it!).
I was also a bit “meh” about the whole thing. I told myself that I was fit and healthy, that I felt well, that statistically I was bloody unlikely to have cervical cancer (a dangerous assumption to make) and that I’d get around to it eventually.
And I’m far from alone in having those feelings.
Women all over the country are putting off their smear tests for one reason or another. Some of us are a little bit apprehensive, some of us are a little bit lazy, some of us don’t know why we’re putting it off, some of us are too busy, or tired, some of us tried to get an appointment but couldn’t for whatever reason, and for some of us it’s all of the above.
The smear test can also be really hard for victims of sexual assault or FGM, non binary or trans men and those with anxiety surrounding their health.
So whilst I absolutely know that for lots of people and lots of reasons the smear test isn’t something we’re tripping over ourselves to do, it really is incredibly important and by having smear tests available to us, we are extraordinarily lucky. The Cervical Screening programme is estimated to save around 4000 lives a year! They don’t just detect cancer, they can literally prevent us from developing it all together.
Thankfully there are resources out there for those who find themselves too afraid to book an appointment. If you are over 25 and affected by any of the issues that I’ve detailed above (or any other actually) I’m leaving some resources below:
- Cervical Screening after sexual violence
- Cervical screening for people with a learning difficulty
- Cervical screening for trans men & non binary people
- Cervical screening tips from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust
I have also had some help with this blog post from the amazing team at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. I sent across the questions that I was asked on my Instagram and they’ve been answered by their GP, Dr Philippa Kaye. I have also shared my own advice along with some more links to resources.
But first I thought it best to actually document my smear test in the hope that it might be helpful for anyone who is putting it off because they don’t know what to expect.
WHAT WAS IT ACTUALLY LIKE??
Alrighty so my appointment was this morning at 9.45. I normally go to the gyms in the mornings but timings would’ve meant that I’d have had to go straight from the gym to the docs and honestly I thought that’d be a bit grotty for my lovely nurse.
A lot of people on Instagram recommended that I wear a long skirt to the appointment so that I’d have a bit more dignity whilst the procedure was being carried out but truthfully that’s not my style (in either sense of the meaning) so I just wore jeans and when instructed to get undressed from the waist down, I just lay my bare butt down on the bed.
Debbie, my nurse, called me into the consultation room and had a quick chat with me about what to expect. She confirmed this was my first one and I told her I was nervous cos having the coil fitted was quite traumatising. She said this wouldn’t be nearly as bad.
She then asked that I get undressed, we had a laugh about her children and my job and how terrifying the fact we’re all slaves to our phones is and by the time our small talk found it’s natural end, she had applied a small amount of lubricant to a clear speculum and I was lying on the bed showing her my vagina.
Before things had a chance to get awkward she was going in.
Hahaha sorry but say that like a solider in an American war film and the whole experience becomes more fun.
This wasn’t the most comfortable or pleasant thing but honestly it was fine, I just tried really hard to keep relaxed. This also sounds a bit perverse but acting under the advisement of someone in my Instagram DMs (queue my mum’s voice in my head saying ‘if they told you to jump off a cliff, would you??’), I tried to “push” a bit, whilst the exam was being done.
Not like a poo push (not that that should need to be clarified but I don’t want to be blamed for any accidents) , but like a pelvic push (actually makes more sense when you’re in the situation) and I think that really helped. Because honestly before I’d even noticed what was happening, I was done.
Going in I was remembering all the things I had been told and read. I’d heard that it felt like a scratch, so I was waiting for that sensation. I’d heard horror stories, because unfortunately not everyone is as lucky as I was and for some women it can be really painful. I thought I’d at least be in some discomfort or have one of those gasping moments of “ow” before it was all over.
But honestly, none of that. It was so fine I felt like lovely Debbie must’ve fucked it up because surely it couldn’t be that easy.
She assured me that she hadn’t and proceeded to tell me what would happen next as I put my pants and trousers back on.
The cells that she had just taken were going to be sent off and checked for abnormalities. Ultimately, the presence of HPV. HPV is actually a sexually transmitted disease (except we don’t like calling it that cos the stigma is rotten and completely unnecessary cos everyone has sex and that’s very healthy and a person will normally have HPV at one point in their life) which can, in some rare cases, turn into cervical cancer.
Debbie assured me that even if the results of this smear came back to say that there were abnormalities that that did not mean that it was cancer and even then, if it showed HPV that STILL didn’t mean I had cancer. Basically she was saying not to worry, cervical cancer is very unlikely.
And that was that. She said she’d text me with the results, but would call if anything was amiss and stressed again that I shouldn’t worry. She also said I could expect a letter and that was that. Smear test DONE.
I’m back home now and feeling fine. That was the other thing that I was a bit apprehensive about; obviously after my coil was fitted my stomach was in bloody agony and I sort of expecting this to be the same. I’m thrilled to tell you that it isn’t. I feel entirely normal.
Your questions answered:
Right since I wanted to be absolutely sure that I wouldn’t balls this up, I’ve called in some backup. This first load of questions have been answered by the wonderful GP, Dr Philippa Kaye who is an ambassador of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
– I’ve had two smears and both have been intensely painful, is that normal?
For most people, a smear test is a bit uncomfortable, but fine on the whole. However, for some people, smear tests are painful – this is usually because of other conditions like vaginal dryness after the menopause, vaginismus or endometriosis; or they can be difficult for other reasons for example if you are a sexual violence survivor. This is really useful for your nurse to know about in advance. Similarly if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, do have a chat with the nurse as there are things they can do to help, such as using a smaller speculum or recommending a different position which can help a smear test to be more comfortable. Most importantly, if you’re in pain at any point, ask your nurse to stop!
– what are the requirements for the gardisil vaccine?
Girls and boys between the ages of 11-13 are offered the HPV vaccine in school. For girls, if you were offered it at school but you missed it, you can have it for free until you’re 25. Your GP can help you with this and tell you if you’re eligible. If you’re over 25, you can pay to have the vaccine privately if you want.
– how often do i need to get them done?
You’ll be invited for a smear test every 3 years if you’re between 25-49, then every 5 years until you’re 65. You can call your GP to check if you are due a test. You’ll only be invited if you’re registered with a GP, so make sure you are signed up.
– is it important to get it done when you’re a virgin?
If you’re a virgin and have never been sexually active (that includes oral sex, fingering or any touching in the genitals, sharing sex toys), your risk of getting cervical cancer is extremely low. If you’ve ever have had any kind of sexual contact but have not had penetrative sex, your risk is lower but it’s still recommended that you go for a smear test and this applies whether your sexual contact has been with either men or women.
– do women ever opt to enter the speculum themselves?
Some women may want to insert the speculum themselves, for example survivors of sexual violence who feel uncomfortable about the procedure. Speak to your nurse about any concerns you have as they will be able to make suggestions to make the test more comfortable.
– do you have to be over 25/invited by post? Can i get one if i’m younger?
Smear tests aren’t recommended for anyone under 25 years old. This is because it may lead to unnecessary treatment as you are more likely to have cell changes which will return to normal at a younger age. Cervical cancer is also really rare in younger women. You may get your first invite up to 6 months before you turn 25 – if you do, you don’t have to wait to book an appointment. If you have symptoms such as bleeding in between periods or bleeding after sex please see your GP.
– what do you do as a sufferer of vaginismus?
Before the smear test, tell your nurse about any health problems that could cause pain or make a test hard. If they know beforehand then they can suggest ways to lessen any pain. You could also make an appointment to discuss this in advance. During the test you are in control. If it hurts at any point, ask your nurse to stop. Ask for lube, for a smaller speculum, to go slower and keep breathing!
– do you have to have had your period before you go to one? / – my doctor insisted i had to be mid cycle before i had it done? / – what happens if you book it but have your period at the time of appointment, can they still do it?
You can book a smear test at any time. If you can, it is best not to book when you have your period because it can make it harder to get a result if you are bleeding heavily. The most important thing is booking an appointment for a date and time that works for you.
The rest of the questions were really along a similar vein, people asking whether or not they needed to have a wax before hand (hells no), what to wear, how long it would take, does it hurt, was the nurse nice etc and I hope that I have answered these throughout this blog post but I will say before I go:
Please, PLEASE, don’t let insecurity stop you from booking your smear test.
I KNOW it feels funny having a stranger look at your fanny and I know it’s not comfortable and there are literally a million things you would rather be doing but honestly and truly I PROMISE you, you aren’t being judged. These people see thousands of bodies a week and they aren’t thinking about yours in any way that isn’t entirely anatomical.
I know you know this but let me please remind you: your body is normal, you have nothing to be ashamed of and no one in the medical profession would ever think twice about something as insubstantial as pubic hair.
I know I was lucky that mine didn’t hurt so it’s very easy for me to say this, but also, in so many instances the pain that comes with this test is so worth it. I don’t wanna make it all deep and heavy but really having a smear test can save your life. I know that’s a HUGE thing to think about and it’s a bit overwhelming but it’s true. Yes it’s a pain in the (front) bum but it’s ultimately a small price to pay for our health.
I know there is an element of shame around avoiding your appointment too. You might be thinking, fuck I should have just gone three years ago when they first asked but now it’s been ages and I still haven’t gone and they’d have forgiven me if it was just a year but it’s been so long now they’re going to be angry and if I DO have cancer it will all be my fault for not checking sooner and everyone will know it and it’s probably just better if I just keep on not going.
DON’T DO THIS.
And as I say that as the queen of doing that.
The only thing that really matters is that you go, now.
In the meantime please do keep up with me on Instagram because I will share my results when I get them!
Now if you’re reading this and you know you’re due for a smear but you’ve been putting it off for whatever reason, can this please be your incentive to just book it? Right now. Please? Pretty please???? WITH CHERRIES ON TOP??!?!!??! Oh well done. You’re the best. Thank you xxx