We Live Blogged A Cervical Smear Test. Enjoy.
The Debrief: Here's what a cervical smear actually feels like. In painstaking detail.
Last week was my 25th birthday, and to celebrate the NHS sent me an invitation to my first pap party (or cervical screening, as they officially call it). As a fear-based person, I was keen to attend my screening in order to find out if there was anything wrong with me. But, to my surprise, my friends were not eager to do the same. In fact, some of my older friends had delayed theirs for years. Why? Were they embarrassed? Scared? Did it take too long? It was, in fact, a combination of all of these things, along with the fact that no one really knows what the eff it is, what it involves or what it checks for. A quick google shows that, worryingly, they’re not the only ones: 1 in 3 women aged 25-29 putting off their screening, and on average delay it for about 15 months.
I mean, I totally get it. Smear tests feel daunting and embarrassing and time-consuming. At 25 we’re women with jobs, social lives and other commitments. We have bills to pay, career ladders to climb and zumba on Thursdays. Booking your screening comes one below paying your water bill on time. I understand that the last thing you want to do after work is have your vagina invaded without the promise of an orgasm (or at least dinner first), but smear tests are a crucial part of our health and wellbeing. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, and cervical screenings save around 4500 lives each year, so it’s well worth forgoing this week's pilates to squeeze in a check-up with your doctor.
To prove it, I have volunteered my cervix to investigate what smears are really like - the Louis Theroux of the genital world, if you will. From the waiting room to walking out, together we will uncover the truth behind the dreaded cervical screening. Are they really as bad as everyone says? Are they painful, awkward, lengthy? My vagina was about to find out.
11.10am - Got here a little early and checked in at reception. I didn’t have to tell them what I’m here for, and they didn’t mention the ’S’ word. They’re chill about it.
11.21am - Called to follow a blonde nurse. Let’s call her Katy, because she tells me that’s her name. She goes through some paperwork with me. It’s the usual: are you pregnant, on medication etc. I ask Nurse Katy what exactly these screenings are looking for. She says they look for abnormal cells on the cervix, which are often caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (or HPV, for short).
11.27am - I’ve been left alone behind a curtain to take off all the clothes on my lower half. This is a struggle because I decided on skinny jeans this morning. Katy is deaf, so she can’t hear me holler when I’m ready. I’m hoping she’s going to be extra cautious with her timing before she comes back into the room, otherwise she’s going to see me with my legs above my head, wrestling off some too-tight denim.
11.30am - I’ve covered myself with what Katy referred to as the ‘modesty blanket’, which is actually a stretch of the bloo roll that school teachers use to clean up sick.
11.30am - The kind of things that go through your mind at your first smear: What sort of pants should I wear? Is there a period etiquette? (FYI: YES! Save it until 2 weeks after your last period, ladies!) Can I keep my socks on? Should I shave, or is that creepy? Should I have a glass of wine prior to help me relax or is that creepier than the shaving thing? Is my daytime drinking getting out of hand? Answers: do whatever will make you feel the most comfortable. Unless comfortable, for you, is turning up blind drunk wearing offensive pants and midway through your period.
11.31am - Katy is back. I have to put my feet together and drop my knees apart. I don’t feel uncomfortable, Katy’s cool. She’s a professional. I am but another vagina in a sea of smears. A light fixture attached to the wall is focused onto my privates, like some pervy Pixar lamp. She smacks on a pair of gloves and gives me a smear 101: the speculum’s cold, it will only last a minute or so, just relax, and wave if I’m uncomfortable. Sounds simple enough.
11.33am - Katy lubes up the device known as a speculum. I know this is the speculum because Katy told me. To the untrained eye it looks like something from a SAW film but it’s harmless. Don’t let it scare you! It opens you up so the nurse can reach your cervix. It essentially makes you a human wind tunnel, so only be concerned at this point if your nurse starts shouting 'ECHO, ECHO ECHO!' in a descending volume into your vagina. Katy tells me she’s going to insert the speculum. It’s very cold. There’s a slight stretching sensation but it’s not painful, just odd. I was told by a friend that tensing makes it worse, and although that feels like a knee-jerk reaction to the temperature of the speculum, I’m making a conscious effort to remain loose. Katy asks me about my job to help me relax. I tell her. I don’t think she can hear me, but I appreciate the distraction. It works.
11.34am - There’s a bit of poking around as Katy tries to locate my cervix. She’s keeps me updated with what she’s doing and why she’s doing it so I know what’s going on. It’s a bit uncomfortable but nothing more. A bit out of the ordinary, but I’ve had foreign objects all up in there before: tampons, IUDs, penises. This is way more bearable than most of those things.
11.36am - It took a couple of minutes but HAZAAR! My cervix has been located! Apparently it took a little longer to find because I have a downward facing cervix, which is not uncommon and nothing to worry about. I’m just jealous that my uterus seems to be doing more yoga than I am. Katy uses a teeny-tiny brush to collect a sample of cells from the cervix wall. I can’t feel this bit. She whips out the brush and stores it safely to be sent away and examined. And that’s it - all done!
11.39am - I have managed to squeeze myself back into my jeans in record time. Katy says I’ll get the results of my test in two weeks. Should we hug? I feel we should hug. Katy has seen an intimate part of my body, it only feels right.
11.40am - Katy did not want to hug but told me I did well and sent me on my way. Until the next time Katester, it’s been real!
I now have to wait two weeks for the results of my test. The risk of abnormalities is relatively low; roughly 1 in 20 results will show an irregularity. But, if there does happen to be some complications with my results, I know that booking my test at the earliest possible opportunity will mean that I have hopefully been able to identify the abnormalities early enough to move forward with a pragmatic plan of action, be it further tests or treatment to remove the cells.
The whole process took about twenty minutes, but that’s because I asked a lot of questions, which Katy was happy to answer. My cervix also took longer to locate because of the unusual angle. I’m glad to know that about myself - the more you know about your body, the better. Most surgeries will allocate a female nurse to do your test, and they are well versed in examining vaginas. It’s as routine in their job as it is for you to check your work emails in the morning. And they’re professionals - they’re not going to look at your lady garden and shout 'JESUS! What’s this bit?!'
Delaying your smear could be the difference between good health and bad. Vaginal care is oh-so important, and the dialogue you have with your body should be a positive one. I mean, we wax it, shave it, pierce it. We push tiny humans through it. All those things are way, way more uncomfortable than a three minute examination. So give your nethers the care and attention it deserves. Get smeared up, ladies.
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Picture: Eylul Aslan
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