My First Cervical Screening

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Cervical screening, smear test, pap smear, whatever you want to call it, if you have a cervix they’re important to have done. If you don’t already know, cervical screenings are a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix, enabling you to get them removed and often prevent cervical cancer. In the UK, they’re offered to all women aged 25 and beyond who are registered with a GP, and between ages 25 and 49 you need to have them done once every three years.

Cervical screenings themselves don’t actually detect cancer, but they do detect the abnormal cells that could later develop into cancer, enabling them to be swiftly removed with no harm done. According to the NHS, since the screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cases of cervical cancer per year has decreased by about 7% - clearly it’s something worth doing!

And yet, they have a pretty bad rap – it’s only been in the past couple of years or so, when people in my social circles have started to become more open and passionate about promoting regular screenings, that I’ve actually started to hear anything ‘positive’. Prior to that, it was all horror stories and tales of discomfort and awkwardness and embarrassment over having another person shove a plastic duckbill up your junk.

I must admit, although I preach booking in for screenings and looking after your vagina, cervix and everything else in that vicinity, I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I was first invited for a screening about a year ago. I didn’t avoid going out of fear or embarrassment, rather I was convinced that working full time and based on previous experience, I wouldn’t be able to get an appointment that I could actually go to at my GP, so I just kept putting it off. Much to my surprise, when I finally bit the bullet and rang up last week, they gave me a 7:30pm appointment just over a week later! So, I went for my screening.

The nurse was very open and honest, and made me feel perfectly at ease. She verified that I was on the implant (I am), asked when my last period was (it’s been irregular lately, I’ve had two in the space of a month and a half) and asked if I was aware of any possibility of pregnancy (I hope not). After that, she explained the process. Essentially, all the nurse does is lube up a speculum (a plastic device that slides in and can be opened slightly to widen the vagina and enable them to insert the brush), sticks it in, opens it, inserts the brush used to collect the samples, and once the cervix is found a quick sample is taken and you’re done. She didn’t mince words and warned up front that it doesn’t feel pleasant, but that I was under no obligation to power through it if I was really uncomfortable. She maintained that it was important that, especially as it was my first experience, I wasn’t horrified into not coming back again for my future screenings and needed to leave the surgery feeling comfortable and confident in coming back again.

I was already wearing an easy-access dress, so all I had to do was kick off my shoes, take off my underwear and hop onto the bed. Don’t do what I did and whip your legs open there and then – apparently the proper position is feet together but knees apart and relaxed, and I have no boundaries… But, once I was comfortable, she talked me through each step.

First she applied lubricant to the speculum, which isn’t really all that intimidating looking if you’re already sexually active and use penetrative toys, but maybe that’s just me. She let me know exactly when she was inserting it, and really the only major discomfort was when she opened it. That was probably the worst part of the whole experience, and even then it was only grimace-inducing discomfort and not something that I was desperate to recoil from.

Next, she inserted the brush. Contrary to what people suggest, you aren’t literally scraped with some horrible metal scraping device – it’s just a little soft, rubbery brush and it’s rubbed gently along the wall of the cervix. This was the part she warned me could take a bit longer and potentially be quite uncomfortable, because it all depends on how easy it is to find your cervix. It was an odd sensation, but I wouldn’t say it was awful. We chatted about it briefly afterwards and both agreed that it just felt off and not-quite-right as opposed to outright unpleasant. In any case, if there are no other positive things to be said about me, I at least have an easy-to-find cervix and the entire physical procedure of my cervical screening was over in probably under two minutes altogether, if that!

After that, I just popped my pants and shoes back on and went on my merry way. The results will take about two to four weeks and are sent to my house directly; if there are any abnormalities, they will invite me to another appointment at a hospital to investigate further within ten days of receiving the letter. Because it’s a preventative measure that might save a life, they’re pretty hot on getting people in as quickly as possible. If I do have to attend an appointment like that and confirm abnormal cells, they laser them there and then, and then I’d have to go back for another look later, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

When I got back home, I did notice some bleeding, but this is apparently not uncommon and I expect it may be in part due to my irregular periods the past couple of cycles and the fact that I could be due for mine literally today.

All in all, the experience really wasn’t as intimidating or awkward as we can be made to believe, or as we make ourselves believe from overthinking. Provided that your nurse or doctor is warm and professional, you shouldn’t have a problem and the procedure itself is extremely quick in spite of the discomfort.

In England during 2014-2015, 6.4% of the 3,073,833 of those screened showed some kind of abnormality*. Not all of those may have been or develop into something dangerous, and 6.4% may not seem like a lot, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I could be in that percentage, or my friends could, or my family could. In 2014 in the UK, around 9 people were diagnosed with cervical cancer every day, and cervical screenings – however awkward they may feel – are there to prevent that from happening.

If you’ve been putting off booking your cervical screening, I encourage you to bite the bullet and do it. It’s really nothing to be afraid of, and it’s an important procedure to look after your physical health and protect you from serious illnesses later on down the line. You can book yourself in for a screening by contacting your GP, and you can find out more information about cervical screenings in the UK on the NHS website.

* Statistics from Cervical Screening Programme for England, Statistics 2014-15

5 comments

  1. Thanks for this! I'm 36 and had to go for my first smear when I went on the pill, so aged 16 (!) It's really no bother at all; I even had to spend a year attending the colposcopy clinic (that's basically a jacked-up smear test) and the doc spent every single appointment ranting about the state of the NHS so it really wasn't much of an ordeal. I wrote a wee thing recently about my experience getting an IUD fitted (http://jenny-marie.co.uk/my-ius-experience-top-iusiud-fitting-tips) I think it's important for folks to know this stuff, and for it to be normalised!

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    1. Thanks Jenny, and thanks for sharing your IUD experience! Honestly I know even less about IUDs than smear tests so the fact that you're sharing it is amazing and so valuable. Longing for the day when the stigma around 'womens' health is gone. :/

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  2. I've seen a few people talk about cervical screenings recently and I think it's great that it's becoming more normal to discuss it. It's reassuring to know that even if it's uncomfortable, it's not horrendous! xx

    Toasty

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    1. Me too! And it's definitely nothing to worry too much about.

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  3. Did the nurse ask you any lifestyle questions? In Scotland it's a whole thing where they ask you about your smoking, drinking and exercise habits and ask to weigh you and I've heard of women being put off by that.
    I've had more smears than I can count by now because in Scotland they used to start them really young and I had dodgy cells and was asked to take part in a medical trial. I had this weird procedure where they put some solutions in to your vagina to see how the cells react. It's all fun and games.

    V <3
    http://sirvikalot.wordpress.com

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