Recently I’ve had my 2nd routine cervical screening test, more widely known as the ‘smear’. The word alone sounds disgusting. Its connotations are dirty and uninviting, and it’s awkward and uncomfortable to even think of it. Why would anybody want to put themselves through the embarrassment, discomfort and oh-so-traumatic experience of having some random person fiddling around in your private bits?
Because it can, and it does, save lives.
For anybody unsure of what a smear or cervical screening test is, it’s a test to detect abnormal cells in the cervix which could eventually go on to cause cancer. In many cases the cells come back as ‘normal’, meaning no further action is required for another 3 years. But sometimes ‘abnormal’ cells are detected, and if this is the case, there are routine procedures in place to examine your cells more closely to see if any further action needs to be taken. If action needs to be taken, there’s another routine procedure in place to, if necessary, remove these abnormal cells. It can be a little daunting to hear, but it’s actually quite common. If these cells are left undetected and unexamined, they can go on to cause cancer. If abnormal cells are detected, but not removed, there’s a risk that they can go on to cause… you guessed it, cancer. So just like we have blood tests, allergy tests, eye tests, hearing tests and every other test under the sun to detect illness or issues which may impact our lives, we have cervical screening tests. We’re not afraid of these other tests (well we may be but we still do them!), so why are we so afraid of the smear?
I found myself reading an article published on the NHS website, and uncovered some surprising statistics from research undertaken by the ‘Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust’ charity. The charity interviewed over 2,000 women and found that 1 in 3 in my age bracket (25-29) simply skip their smear, for various reasons. Over a third of women are too embarrassed to attend because they’re conscious of their appearance (including not being waxed or shaved). Just under a quarter of those surveyed would rather not know if something was wrong. There are more statistics and information on the website here if you’re interested in further reading. I can relate to these reasons – especially the not wanting to know if something is wrong. Ignorance is bliss after all. But ignorance is only bliss when your health and possibly life doesn’t depend on it. It’s only bliss until our once fully detectable and removable cancerous cells have developed to a point where it’s too late to remove them because they’ve turned into tumours. And it’s only bliss until we receive the news that those same cancerous cells that went undetected and/or unremoved have spread so far across our bodies that there’s nothing else that can be done in order to save our lives.
And here we are, embarrassed and worrying whether the nurse would think we were ‘normal’ down there.
Nobody likes to think about cancer. And don’t get me wrong, I completely understand it feels unnatural and embarrassing to go into a room and have such an invasive test. I have been nervous both times I’ve been now. Most recently I had to give myself a mental pep-talk to convince myself to get a grip. I felt ridiculous – I’m the one that goes on and on at my friends to get their smears, yet there I was feeling nervous and a bit embarrassed. But I’ve also witnessed first hand how a smear can save a life. The experience of watching somebody who I love very much going through cervical cancer (which was detected – albeit late on – through the smear!) at an age not too far from my own now, was enough for me to vow to go straight for mine when the time came. I owe it to her, as well as myself and anybody who cares about me, to do so.
They make it as easy as possible for you. They send you letters followed by reminder letters if you don’t action it within a timeframe. You can request a female nurse to undertake the test. You can even request a no-pressure meeting with a nurse beforehand to talk through your concerns. There is a whole host of resources out there to explain what it is, what happens and how it all works. But they can only do what they can and the rest is on you. In my case, it’s a 5-10 minute appointment (with a whole 90 seconds of that being the actual test itself and the rest being me chatting to the nurse, answering a few questions and getting my tights off and on again). It doesn’t hurt, just feels a tiny bit uncomfortable (which is kind of expected given the nature of it!), and I’m left with just a faint period-style cramp afterwards. That’s it. 5-10 minutes every (hopefully) 3 years, 90 seconds of me feeling a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed and the satisfaction of knowing I’m keeping on top of my health. And that’s the awful, dreaded, traumatic smear. Naturally, there are some girls for whom the test is longer, and for some girls it can definitely be painful. For some others it can be a little more awkward (especially in cases where you may have and didn’t expect a male nurse!). For some girls the very thought of it is enough to make them faint. And of course, as with everything in life, there are some unique cases where unfortunately, even a smear can’t prevent cancer. But it is still so so important to go. For many women, the smear test is a quick, easy and straightforward experience. Yes it’s a bit uncomfortable. Yes it’s a bit unnatural. Yes, you may feel a bit embarrassed. But it can save your life. Do whatever you need to do to attend your appointment. Ask for a female nurse. Speak to every girl you know who’s had one. Go with somebody to hold your hand, if you have to. But don’t not go to it.
A whopping 94% of those surveyed in the aforementioned research stated ‘they would have a free test to prevent cancer if it was available’. I find this one the most interesting. Because there is a free test which aims to prevent cancer. And it is available. It’s right there waiting for you – take it.