Smear test. Two words that can scare the bejeezus out of you and fill your mind with anxieties. This short and pain-free procedure may not be the best way to spend a few minutes out of your day (I know I’d rather be eating donuts,) but it has the potential to save your life – but appointment attendance is rather worryingly back to a 20 year low. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, with around two women losing their lives to the disease every day, but 75% of cases can be prevented by cervical screening and 90% of pre-cancer cases can be picked up and treated with very little inconvenience. Our regular smear test can hugely increase our chance of leading a happy, healthy, problem-free life, but so many of us are skipping them altogether because of the fear of the unknown and generally being worried about a smear test.
Shockingly, a third of women between the ages of 25 and 29 do not take up their smear test invitation, while 1 in 5 don’t actually attend their appointment after it’s been booked. Not only is that a waste of the surgery’s time when they’re already hugely stretched, but it means those women aren’t armed with the tools to keep their bodies healthy. Although smear tests aren’t exactly enjoyable, they’re so quick and pain-free (for the majority of women) that we should all be making the time to get tested. A few minutes out of your day every three years really doesn’t sound like a lot, but still thousands of women are avoiding these vital appointments because they’re afraid – afraid of what they entail or afraid of the outcome.
The lack of clarity about exactly what happens during a smear test can cause a huge amount of anxiety if you’ve never experienced one before; after all, none of us take particular pleasure from letting a complete stranger near our nether-regions. However, I’m here to give you the lowdown to settle your mind, especially if you’re worried about a smear test, encourage every one of you to book that appointment when it’s due – and to get yourself down to the GP, no excuses!
WHEN SHOULD I BE GOING FOR A SMEAR TEST?
Your first smear test should happen when you reach 25; the reason it’s not before that age is because historically smears were picking up on abnormalities that were just a result of the body changing and continuing to develop. (Although there’s much debate around this issue, if you feel strongly that you want to undertake a smear earlier because of concerns or family history I’d advise discussing with your GP.) After your first one you should pop back around every three years for a check-up; your doctor should send you a reminder letter, but if not make sure you know when you’re due another test and book an appointment.
WHAT DO THEY USE TO CARRY IT OUT?
A smear test involves two things: a plastic speculum and a little plastic brush. Each time a smear test is conducted the nurse will use a brand new set, fresh out of the sterile packaging. The speculum is used to open the cervix so the little brush can retrieve a sample for testing; because no cervix is ever the same, there are a variety of sizes to make the procedure as quick and easy as possible. Your nurse will start with the ‘average’ size (which tends to be best for the majority of people,) moving up or down if required.
SO WHAT DOES THE NURSE ACTUALLY DO?
The whole process usually takes about sixty seconds from beginning to end. You remove your knickers and jump up on the examination bed, either lifting your knees or sitting in a frog position to give the nurse the best view and access point. The nurse will use a small about of lubricant on the forceps and insert them into your vagina, opening them slowly to allow her to find your cervix; once she’s found the right point, the little brush is used to swish around inside and take a sample of cells for testing. As soon as the brush is covered (usually about five quick swirls) the forceps are removed and you can pop back on your underwear.
WILL IT HURT?
No, not at all. You may experience a little discomfort from the pressure of the forceps widening inside, or even a little tickle from the brush, but there is no pain whatsoever for the majority of women. I can assure you (if you’ve never experienced one before,) that after your smear you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. The key thing is to relax as much as possible and the procedure will take seconds.
ARE THERE ANY SIDE EFFECTS?
You may experience slight period cramps or spotting for 24hrs afterwards (I usually have nothing more than very mild cramps for an hour or two,) which is perfectly normal. This is simply because you’ve been prodded at a bit inside and your lady parts can be quite sensitive. Other than that you wouldn’t even know you’d had anything done; you won’t be hobbling around or be in any kind of discomfort.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET THE RESULTS?
Within two weeks you should receive a letter through the post confirming the results. If your test comes back as normal then you don’t have to do anything at all until your next one is due. If your test shows abnormalities, then you’ll be asked to pop back for a colposcopy at the hospital; this is simply a closer look inside your cervix with a microscope and isn’t anything to worry about.
WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY SAY I HAVE ‘ABNORMALITIES’?
If you’re concerned about the results coming back ‘abnormal’, then it may ease your anxieties a little to know that about 94% of tests come back completely clear of any abnormalities. There are two types of abnormalities – cells that are pre-cancerous and have the potential to develop into something more serious, as well as cells that will simply return to normal without any treatment whatsoever. An abnormal result doesn’t mean cancer; an abnormal result doesn’t even necessarily mean you’ve got pre-cancerous cells; an abnormal results simply means there’s something worth having anther look at, so don’t worry at all because it’s better to be safe than sorry.
AND IF I HAVE PRE-CANCEROUS CELLS?
During your further examination you may be told that these cells need to be removed. It’s a simple and quick procedure conducted under local anesthetic that removes any potential issues from developing. (I had an area of my cervix removed in 2013 for this reason and wrote about it here.) Don’t worry about this happening though – it’s very unlikely.
CAN YOU GIVE ME ANY TIPS FOR MY FIRST TIME?
1. Wear a skirt or a dress so you feel less ‘exposed’ and nervous. If you have to wack off your trousers and literally lie on a table half-naked, then you’re going to feel uncomfortable; if you wear a dress or a skirt you won’t be able to see anything and the whole process will feel a lot more discrete.
2. Relax, don’t panic and if you want to ask questions then ask: the nurses are used to seeing young women for their first appointment so they’re happy to chat or take the time to explain and make you feel comfortable. The more tense you are the longer it will take to get the plastic forceps in, which is where it can become a little uncomfortable.
3. If you’re nervous about getting your lady bits out in front of a stranger, take the time to have a little trim and pamper before your appointment. The nurses see thousands of vaginas every single year so they don’t even pay attention, but if it will make you feel more comfortable and confident then go for it.
I can’t express how vitally important a regular smear test is, having had a pretty close shave myself a few years ago. I was lucky that my advanced pre-cancerous cells were found and removed within a couple of weeks, but suffice to say if I’d not bothered with my smear I may not be here today telling you to do the same. There’s so much unnecessary anxiety around smear tests, when these simple and quick procedures could remove future anxiety and stress altogether; there’s really no need to be worried about a smear test.
Stop making excuses; do it. Do it now. And then treat yourself to that donut as a reward.
For more information on Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and smear tests in general, visit Jo’s Trust who provide amazing support and advice for free.
Photos Taken By Kaye Ford: www.fordtography.co.uk