In December, I turn 25. What does that really mean nowadays? Becoming wiser? Maybe. Cheaper car insurance? Hopefully. But what it definitely means is that I have to start going for smear tests.
According to the NHS website, a smear test is formally known as a cervical screening test.
A cervical screening test (previously known as a smear test) is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
This isn’t a test for cancer. Instead, the smear test is intended to check the health of the cervix, and to pick up on any abnormalities. 1 in 20 women who are tested receive abnormal results, which sounds like a scary number, but in reality, it means that the abnormalities were caught in the early stages. Around 3000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year in the UK, and while it is possible for women of all ages to develop it, it’s more likely in sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.
All women who are registered with a GP are invited for cervical screening:
- aged 25 to 49 – every three years
- aged 50 to 64 – every five years
- over 65 – only women who haven’t been screened since age 50 or those who have recently had abnormal tests.
What about gay women? Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust says you should still go:
All women, regardless of their sexual orientation, who are over the age of invitation should have regular cervical screening. Most cervical abnormalities are caused by persistent infection with HPV. As HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, gay women are equally at risk of contracting HPV and experiencing abnormal cervical changes and, thus, should always attend when invited for cervical screening.
The NHS website says that the test itself should take around 5 minutes. You’ll be asked to undress from the waist down, and lie on the couch. Using a speculum, the doctor or nurse will be able to see your cervix, and they will use a small soft brush to collect some cells.
The procedure shouldn’t be painful, but it could be uncomfortable or embarrassing. You’re advised to relax, and let the doctor or nurse know if it feels particularly painful.
The sample collected is sent off to a lab, and results should be back within 2 weeks. Remember that abnormal does not mean cancer!
The majority of these abnormalities reflect precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix, not cancer.
Women who have never been sexually active are not at risk of developing cervical cancer, but if you’re unsure, check with your doctor.
Before The Appointment
I work for a medical supplies company, so I know exactly what a speculum looks like. Hint: it doesn’t look particularly pleasant. Prior to my appointment, I read countless forums and articles about women going for their smear tests. For every twenty positive stories, there was one horror story that stuck out like a sore, ahem, thumb. Bleeding, lack of lube (ouch!). You could end up with a roomful of people – students, nurses, doctors – staring up your punani.
The thing you need to realise is that they’ve probably seen every kind of punani going, so there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about. And if you’re worried about anything, communicate with the doctor/nurse. It’s your vagina,, be vocal about what you need.
There’s a million ways to scare yourself before going to do something like this, but honestly, the only way you’re going to know what it’s like is to go and do it. Which is what I’m going to do, tonight, after work.
Where: GP’s office
Feeling: Shitting a brick
Waiting is always the worst, isn’t it? I booked this appointment a few weeks ago, and now it’s here, I’m terrified.
After The Appointment
Now someone isn’t poking around down there, I can describe how my appointment went. Be warned that my experience won’t necessarily be your experience. We’re all different, and that goes for our vaginas too.
My pubic bone sits low. Did you know that? Because I didn’t. 25 years old and nobody told me my pubic bone is low. That sure explains a few things. So I felt some pain when she was trying to insert the speculum. But, upon realising I was in pain, she had a look and told me about my misbehaving pubic bone. To combat this, I had to put my hands under my bum and lift my pelvis. After that, it was bearable.
The weather suddenly reverted back to summer, so I was sweltering, my glasses steamed up. She kept chatting to me as she did her thing, and I realised my eyes were screwed shut and my fists clenched. I relaxed a bit, she opened up the speculum then started brushing away.
I’m not going to lie. That part was uncomfortable. In fact, the whole business wasn’t very pleasant. But the nurse was kind and funny and attentive, and she got the job done quickly. I need to keep the low pubic bone thing in mind for next time, but that’s me done for 3 years. Hurray!
We women have a responsibility to look after ourselves. Feminism is all about being free and equal and fierce, but my brand of feminism also means that we take ownership of our own lives, and getting a smear test falls under that category.
So own it! If you’re due a smear test, go get one!
For more information, check out the links below, or chat to your GP or sexual health clinic.