There are some events in our lives that serve as markers of our age. At 16 you can have sex legally, at 17 you can learn to drive and at 18 you can legally drink.
At 25, the marker may be a little less attractive to women; you can have your first cervical screening – better known colloquially as a “smear”.
When I turned 24 last December, I didn’t realize that I could register for my GP test within a few months of my 25th birthday.
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A cervical screening is a test to check the health of your cervix, which is the opening of your uterus from your vagina. What matters is that it is not a test for cancer, but a test to prevent cancer.
According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, nine women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK every day, which equates to about 3,200 a year.
Even so, prior to the pandemic, one in four women and one in four people with a cervix did not undergo cervical screening if invited.
I’ll be honest, the first time I saw the letter inviting me to my demo it was stuffed into my bedside drawer pretty quickly so I could take care of myself.
But when my friend sent me a message last week that she was getting hers, I decided to bite the bullet and call my GP to make my appointment.
So what happened
The big day came yesterday (September 15th) and I made my way to my first smear at my family doctor’s practice.
I had felt pretty nervous all day because I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew the importance of getting checked out.
After going through the reception, the nurse called me into a room with a hospital bed and various paintings and posters on the walls.
Before we started, she asked me a few questions and checked if I was using birth control, if I was sexually active, and when was my last period.
The NHS sets out some clear, key facts about your cervical screening:
- It’s not a test for cancer, it’s a test to prevent cancer.
- All women and people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 should be invited in writing.
- During the screening appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix.
- The sample will be checked for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause changes in the cells in your cervix. These are known as the “high risk” types of HPV.
- If these types of HPV are not found, no further testing is required.
- If these types of HPV are found, the sample will be checked for changes in the cells in your cervix. These can then be treated before they turn into cervical cancer.
- You will receive your results in a letter, usually in around 2 weeks, explaining what will happen next.
At the end we chatted and talked about why it was important to be examined and laughed briefly at the “joy of being a woman”.
She checked that it was my first exam and assured me that everything would be fine – which I appreciated.
When the controls were completed, I was asked to go behind the curtain, remove my pants and underwear, and climb onto the bed with my knees drawn up.
I let her know when I was on the bed and she came around the curtain before asking me to put my feet together and let my knees fall to either side (so that your legs are diamond shape).
At that point, she began the actual test – which took less than a minute. She talked to me the whole time and was calm and reassuring.
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During the screening itself, a speculum will be inserted into your vagina that will be used to open the walls so your cervix can be seen. A small brush is then inserted through the speculum and rotated a few times to collect a sample.
I don’t mean to lie, it didn’t feel particularly comfortable with the speculum – but it wasn’t unbearable either. Before you have time to react, it’s done. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was probably about 30 seconds.
Given that this is a test that could help prevent cancer, it is definitely worth going through 30 seconds of mild discomfort.
After she finished the test, she checked to see if I was feeling good to get up and gave me some space to get dressed again.
It takes about two weeks to get my results in the mail explaining what happens next.
If “high-risk” types of HPV (human papillovirus) are identified in my cervix, the sample is examined for changes in the cells in my cervix – which could then be treated before they have a chance of developing into cervical cancer.
If they’re not found, I don’t need any more tests, and my next cervical screening will be roughly every three years.
According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that 8 out of 10 people get and that usually goes away without any problems.
The virus infects the skin and all moist membranes such as the cervix, the lining of the mouth and throat, the vagina, the vulva and the anus.
It’s usually transmitted through sexual contact, which can cause some people to worry or embarrass – but it’s not something to be ashamed of.
Because HPV lives on our skin, it’s easy to come by and difficult to protect. At some point in our lives, 8 out of 10 men and women will develop HPV. In most cases, your immune system will get rid of HPV without causing any problems.
Types of HPV are usually divided into:
- Low risk HPV
- High risk HPV
Low risk HPV cannot cause problems or cause minor conditions such as warts on the hands and feet and genital warts. Most types of HPV are low-risk.
High risk About 13 types of HPV are associated with some cancers. It’s important to remember that if you have any type of HPV, including high-risk HPV, your body will usually get rid of them without any problems. Having high-risk HPV doesn’t mean you will get cancer all the time if it goes away without any problems.
Genital HPV About 40 types of HPV affect the genital area of both men and women, including the cervix, anus, vagina, skin of the penis, vulva, and perennial skin.
In England, Scotland and Wales, cervical screening (a smear test) is now the first to test for high-risk HPV so anyone who has it can get the right treatment. Although there is no treatment for HPV itself, treatments exist for conditions caused by HPV, including genital warts, cervical cell changes, and cancer.
I am very keen to reassure and encourage any other women or people with cervix who have been invited for their cervical screening.
I know it can feel daunting and scary, but it’s so important to get it – and it really only takes a minute of slight discomfort to avoid something much worse.
You should also know that you can speak to your GP if you are concerned. I told the lady who made mine that I was quite nervous and she was kind and supportive.
However, I understand that cervical screenings can be incredibly difficult for survivors or victims of sexual violence, which can make the experience particularly traumatic or stressful, but you should know that you are not alone.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust emphasizes that it is normal and reasonable to feel this way, but to know there is support. Most importantly, they encourage individuals to speak to someone they trust first.
They add that whether or not to have cervical screening is entirely your decision, and when you do you are in control of the test. You can regain that sense of control by making some decisions about how the appointment will go by speaking about the test. There is a lot more advice here.
“It’s a really important test”
Samantha Dixon, executive director of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said, “The cervical screening (or smear test) is a free health test. It checks for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) and, if you have HPV, checks for changes in cells in the cervix (abnormal cells).
“It’s a really important test because it can prevent cervical cancer from developing. It can be difficult, however, and about one in four women and people with a cervix will not take it if invited.
“A busy lifestyle, previous trauma, fear and embarrassment are just a few reasons. We want everyone to know that no question is too big or too small and no worry is too silly or weird.
“However you feel about cervical screening, you are not alone. Jo’s is here to support you. You can reach our free helpline on 0808 802 8000”
For more information, advice and support, visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust here or the NHS website here.
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