Nobody would choose to spend a morning in the doctor’s surgery letting a stranger look at your nether regions, but those few minutes of embarrassment are totally worth it if they could potentially save a life. Smear tests are worryingly on the decrease, even though we’re more educated and aware about their importance than ever; as we step towards the tenth anniversary of reality star Jade Goody’s premature death from cervical cancer, the results of her awareness building are starting to wane. Although 75% of cases can be prevented by cervical screening and up to 90% of pre-cancer cases can be picked up and treated with very little inconvenience, one in four women aren’t attending their appointments. So why may that be? There’s no doubt that one of the biggest barriers to attending these all important appointments is the fear around smear test discomfort and pain.
For the majority of women the procedure is quick and pain-free, even if slightly uncomfortable and a tad cringe-worthy, but for a minority a smear test can be painful. There are many reasons why this may happen, including Vaginismus (when the vagina suddenly tightens as you try to put something into it,) Endometriosis, cervical erosion, vaginal dryness, or even purely because you’re clenching and unable to relax. The feeling of anxiety around your smear test (perhaps because of a previously bad experience, or even having suffered sexual abuse or violence) can lead to your cervix clenching and prevent comfortable entry of the spectrum – which is what’s required to undertake the test.
So if you’re anxious, have had a previous bad experience or are worried about smear test discomfort, how can you make the appointment more comfortable? Hopefully some of these suggestions may help…
1. Tell your nurse about any health problems or issues that may cause pain. If they’re aware beforehand they can suggest ways to lessen any smear test discomfort and ensure you’re not anxious. Similarly, if it’s your first test or you’re feeling nervous, speak to your nurse so they can support you and ensure your discomfort is minimised.
2. Remember you’re are in control. If it hurts at any point, ask your nurse to stop. Don’t be pressured into thinking it has to be done on the first attempt – take your time, breathe deeply and ensure you’re as comfortable as possible.
3. If you don’t want to go to the appointment alone or to explain why you find smear tests painful, you’re always able to take someone you trust with you. They can speak on your behalf, or simply be there to offer support. A hand to hold goes a long way.
4. Breathing exercises can help relax your body and mind, while giving you something else to focus on. Look them up and practice beforehand, or speak to your nurse who will be able to provide some suggestions and support. You can even take along a meditation app to use during the appointment if you find it helpful.
5. Speculums come in different sizes, so if the one being used is causing discomfort you can ask your nurse to use a smaller size. They tend to start with the standard size, so this may help to minimise pain or discomfort from widening the cervix.
6. If you suffer from vaginal dryness, you can also ask the nurse to give you a vaginal oestrogen cream or pessary to make inserting the speculum easier. Discuss with your nurse what the best approach would be to ensure as minimal discomfort as possible.
7. Some women find laying in different positions can reduce pain and make them feel more comfortable, rather than the standard ‘frogs legs’ that many nurses as you to take; speak to your nurse to see what they suggest and ensure you’re comfortable.
Smear tests are incredibly important and really could save you from complex, invasive and life saving treatments down the line, but the fear around them can be real. My advice is to relax, prepare and talk – arming yourself with knowledge and talking to your nurse about the best way to ensure smear test discomfort is minimised will ensure a much better experience. Nobody wants to attend a smear, but in my opinion it’s like going to the dentist: a few moments of ‘ouch’ and an hour later you’ve forgotten all about it.
Please, please, please attend your smear test appointment; it could make the world of difference.
If you are concerned or want to discuss smear test’s further, then don’t hesitate to talk to Jo’s Trust in absolute confidence. Find out more on their website: www.jostrust.org.uk
I’m an ambassador for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Read all my blog posts here.
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