You know how passionate I am about vaginas. Not so much about what’s going on on the outside, but very much what’s going on inside – just to clarify that before we begin. Over the last few years I’ve spoken openly and regularly about the importance of your intimate health and how a smear test quite possibly saved my life. (In a nutshell, I requested a test while changing doctors only to be rebuffed numerous times by a overly authoritarian receptionist, before she finally gave in and made me appointment; that test came back showing severely developed pre-cancerous cells that needed to be immediately removed and monitored. Suffice to say I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t been adamant about needing a smear test at that moment.) I’ve spoken about what happens during a smear test, what abnormal smear test results mean, what treatment options are available and what you can do to make a smear more comfortable; I’ve live streamed my own appointment, have become an ambassador for cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust and I’ve made it my mission to keep the conversation going.
As September marks Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, it provides another opportunity to discuss what happens during a smear test and the importance of regular appointments. But let’s start with some facts… Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35, with around 3000 individuals being diagnosed with the disease every year. 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. That makes me frustrated, sad and a little bit angry.
These smear test appointments provide an opportunity to take control of your health and prevent future discomfort, stress or life-changing treatment, so they shouldn’t be overlooked. I totally understand the unknown can be scary, but researching prior to your appointment can definitely put your mind at ease and help prepare. If you’ve yet to attend a smear, have been putting it off or simply want to know more, then hopefully some of these key answers will help…
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 your doctor should send you a reminder letter every 3-4 years for a follow-up 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 vagina so the little brush can retrieve a sample from your cervix for testing.
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 speculum 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. (If you do experience discomfort, then I’ve written some tips on how you can minimise it here.)
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. I’ve written more on this topic here, if you’re concerned about abnormalities or what to know what to expect.
So there you have it, that’s what happens during a smear test.
If there’s one thing I’d like to happen as a result of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month (which also includes womb and ovarian cancer,) it’s that we start to not only be aware of our intimate health more – but discuss it with our gal pals too. There’s only one way we can empower ourselves to take control of our health and hopefully eradicate these diseases altogether: talk. Talking leads to action and action leads to a reduction in those statistics you read above, so let’s not be embarrassed to take control of our vaginas and treat them to the same care we do every other area of our bodies.
If you’ve been putting it off, book that smear today. And ask your friends to do the same.
I’m an ambassador for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Read all my blog posts here.
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