For a potentially life-saving procedure, nobody really has a good word to say about smear tests. Maybe it’s the thought of someone having a good scrape around your lady bits or maybe it’s just the word ‘smear’ that puts people off. Either way, when I got my letter through the post advising me to book in for my first cervical screening test, I had two thoughts: firstly, holy crap, am I really almost 25?; and secondly, dripping with sarcasm, oh, lovely.
The cervical screening test (also known as the smear test, or the pap smear) is a physical test that aims to detect any abnormal cells on the entrance to your womb, which is called your cervix. It’s performed by a doctor or nurse, who looks inside your vagina to your cervix and takes a sample of cells with a small soft brush.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound particularly pleasant and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but I’d rather have a few minutes of mild discomfort than a form of cancer in my cervix going undetected. So I booked in straight away.
Why is it important?
If you have a cervix, you could get cervical cancer; just like if you have lungs, you could get lung cancer — scary but unfortunately true. Attending your regular cervical screenings when invited could detect any abnormalities in your cervical cells and potentially detect any cancers there and save your life.
Nowadays, they also check for HPV (Human Papillomavirus) as a routine part of the test, even if you had the vaccination at school. This is because the HPV vaccination doesn’t guarantee complete immunity from contracting the virus, and HPV can cause cervical cancer. HPV can be spread through sexual contact, so this does mean that during your test, you’ll be asked a couple of questions about your sexual history/activity.
Unfortunately, because of either embarrassments or discomfort amongst other personal reasons, a great portion of those invited to attend choose not to — particularly those in my age bracket. I get it. Having a stranger peer up inside my privates isn’t the ideal start to my morning. But if it means I get the peace of mind that comes with a clean bill of cervical health, I’ll happily lay back, grin and bear it.
When I went into the examination room for my appointment, the nurse was really lovely right off the bat. She sat me down and talked me through what the procedure would entail, including showing me the equipment she’d be using. She asked if I had any questions or worries, and then briefly double-checked my medical history before showing me to the private area in the appointment room, where there was doctor’s bed/couch thing dressed with a fresh paper towel behind a modesty curtain.
I was then asked to undress from the waist down behind the curtain and lie down on the bed, which felt a bit weird but there was nothing to do but do it, if that makes sense — no point waiting around feeling embarrassed. I was wearing jeans, but if I’d been wearing a skirt I could have left that on and just taken off my underwear. While I was doing that, the nurse washed her hands and brought her fresh equipment over to the bed area.
She then asked me to position myself accordingly (legs bent, ankles together, knees apart; I couldn’t help feeling a bit frog-like!). She then lubricated the speculum (a plastic piece of equipment that acts a bit like a car jack to keep the vaginal walls open) with water and gently inserted it, telling me what she was doing as she did it. She informed me that they use water on the speculum instead of other lubricants to avoid affecting the test results.
The speculum looks scary, I’ll give you that. Luckily, I’d already been for a doctors appointment where one was used, so I knew what to expect. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, and having another person winch my privates open felt a bit odd, but it did not hurt. More importantly, the lovely nurse repeatedly told me to let her know if I was in any pain or needed to take a minute, and kept up a chatty rapport throughout which provided a nice distraction.
Usually, the nurse will take a few minutes to locate your cervix. I didn’t actually know this, but the whole female reproductive system is fairly mobile, so it kind of floats around in your abdomen rather than staying completely stationary. I asked the nurse how she knows what to look for, and she said it’s like looking through a fleshy tunnel with a little hole at the end, called the os. Mine was hovering around somewhere in my left hand side, so the nurse had to go in at a different angle a couple of times and call the head nurse (the proclaimed Foofoo Queen) in to help, which is just typical of my body to be awkward and inconvenient!
Then they took a small soft brush about the size of an IKEA pencil (weird comparison, but I can’t think of anything else), went in through the speculum with it and swivelled it around in a circle about four times. They called this motion a ‘sweep’, and it’s this part that picks up a broad sample of the soft cells found at the entrance to your cervix.
This is what the brush looks like. It felt a bit odd — a little brush sweeping around in your tummy is obviously going to feel a bit odd — but it didn’t hurt and it was over in around five seconds. I expected to feel a lot more discomfort!
The nurse then popped the brush into a small plastic testing pot and labelled it with my details while I put my clothes back on, before checking the details through with me to ensure they were accurate. She then gave me a leaflet about HPV and the cervical screening, and advised me to check out a website called Jo’s Trust, which has loads of helpful and reassuring information about the cervical screening test and everything it entails. Importantly, she also advised me that it’s totally normal to experience a bit of vaginal bleeding in the days after the test, which would have made me panic if she hadn’t told me!
Overall, the appointment was over and done with in ten minutes. It wasn’t painful, and the nurses who performed the procedure did everything they could to ensure any discomfort – both physical and emotional! – was kept to a minimum. I’ll find out the results in 8-12 weeks, maybe sooner, and from there I can take any necessary steps as needed — hopefully none!
If you’re coming up to your first smear test and are worried about going, or even considering not going at all because you’ll probably be fine, take it from someone who has just gone through the experience: MAKE SURE YOU GO. Read your letter, ring your GP and book your appointment. Sure, you’ll probably be fine… but what if you’re not? Grin and bear that little bit of embarrassment or discomfort for five minutes — you’re so much better off going through that for the assurance of a clean bill of health, than putting yourself through much worse if, God forbid, you end up becoming really poorly.
For further information, have a look at these websites: