I know the whole #SmearForSmear campaign has died down a little now, but that doesn’t mean to say that smear tests aren’t still ongoing – everyday there are women going for their first, second, third (and so on…) smear tests. And today I went for my first smear test. I may not have the biggest readership ever, but I feel that if I share my experience of what happened, I might help someone else out in some small way to go for their own. After all, it was because of reading stories from other bloggers whose blogs I return to day after day going for their first test that I had the courage to book mine immediately.
When the news broke that Jade Goody had died from cervical cancer at the age of only 27, I realised the importance of going for smear tests. A smear test can bring up the very earliest warning signs that you have cells that could develop into cancerous ones at some point, therefore catching them before you’ve even developed cancerous cells let alone got any symptoms. If these cells are caught at this early stage, they can fairly easily be removed to prevent them becoming cancerous ones later on when they would be much harder to get rid of.
I was part of the first group of girls given the “cervical cancer jab” or HPV vaccine when it was released – fortunately I was just in the age group to receive that before I left school, so off we tracked up to the infirmary to receive 3 shots over the course of 6 months. This prevents the contraction of several types of the human papilloma virus; specifically, it targets the ones which most commonly cause cervical cancer (read more about it here). So that was probably the first time I started thinking about cervical cancer being something that can be prevented by actions you can take yourself. All the girls were given a talk beforehand explaining how the shots would work and emphasising the fact that, despite having the shots, it was still entirely possible for us to contract a strain of HPV or have cancerous cells. This is because it only targets specific strains and as such, having these shots does not mean you don’t need to go for your smear test. It’s like having a flu jab – it only covers specific strains of flu, but you can still contract others. In this case though, HPV can cause changes to cells which may cause cancer. So even though I had these jabs, I’d had it drummed into me how important it was to make sure I had a smear test done still, and thought I would drum it into you too, just in case you didn’t know!
Since the Jade Goody news, I’ve maintained the opinion that smear tests should be offered at an earlier age than 25. In Scotland and Wales, young women are invited for their first smear test at the age of 20, yet in England we wait until we’re 25. This is apparently because it’s rare to spot changes in cells in women under 25, but then again, I was told it was extremely unlikely that I would have gallstones at my young age and considering that I was a healthy weight – we all know how that turned out! (If you weren’t around then, it transpired at age 21 that I had had gallstones since 16, and I was eventually signed off work and given painkillers usually given to women in labour to deal with the pain before finally having it removed…). I’ve also heard and read more than enough stories from people I know and blogs I read about women having changes in their cervical cells at their first smear test, ie. at the age of 24 or 25, like me. So as soon as my letter came inviting me for the test, I rang the doctors immediately. With my track record of health, I want to make sure I’m on the alert at all times for things I can do to be proactive about it. Technically though, I’m not 25 yet. Women usually receive their later in the months leading up to the 25th birthday – mine is September and I received my letter at the end of May. I jumped on the chance to have it done immediately though.
So, how did the test actually go?! Having read all the stories I had on blogs first, I knew it wasn’t really a thing to be scared of. For most women, the test is just a slight discomfort, a few experience a little pain, and some experience more pain. It depends on your body and the situation you’re in at the time (I’d imagine if you get too nervous, those muscles contract and make it slightly more uncomfortable).
My appointment was at 10am, so I took the hour beforehand when I’d usually be at work to work at home doing what I normally do. There are a couple of things women normally get nervous about with smear tests: the apprehension of pain, and the fact that you’ll have to undress to some extent. Having had both a camera inserted into my bladder under local anaesthetic last year and an operation on my bladder, I wasn’t particularly nervous about either of those things – I’d had several doctors up in my business now, so I’m not worried about exposing myself, and I assured myself that having a camera inserted into my urethra while still awake would be more painful than a smear test, as the urethra is a much, much smaller hole – and this was true!
I was greeted by a friendly nurse at my local doctors – it wasn’t one I’d met before, but she sat me down first and introduced herself, then talked through why I’d been invited for the test, what the purpose of it was, what would happen to the sample she’d taken afterwards, how long after I’d hear back, and what the actual procedure itself would be like. We also discussed what contraception I use and she took my blood pressure while I was there (since I was due to have it done next month anyway, got that out the way, boom!). She made sure I understood everything completely and was happy for me to ask any questions I had.
She then pulled a curtain around the examination bed thingy with a chair to pop my clothes on, and asked me to remove my knickers, hike my dress up (I’d come prepared to undress as little as possible, boom again!), then lay down on the bed with a large piece of tissue to cover myself. During that time, she prepared the bits and pieces she needed. The whole test took about 15 seconds. I was asked to bend my legs then flop them out to the side. They use an instrument called a speculum which she covered in a lubricant before inserting. This is made out of plastic, so isn’t cold and a shock to your body when it’s inserted! The only slightly uncomfortable part for me was when she opened up the speculum, and it was a sensation of the muscles being pulled apart rather than actual pain. She then used a small brush to collect some of the cells from my cervix – apparently this can feel like a tickly or scratchy sensation for some, but apart from feeling it moving, I didn’t actually feel anything at all! And that was it, it was over.
I then dressed again behind the curtain, all the while chatting to the nurse about the #SmearForSmear campaign. She explained that I might experience a small amount of spotting afterwards and told me to expect a letter in the next 2 to 6 weeks that would let me know whether there are changes to the cells or not. And that’s where the story ends for now, I suppose. I say “for now” because there’s always the possibility that your smear test is not clear enough and you’ll have to have it repeated, or that there are changes to cells and they need to take a biopsy for further investigation. Even if you don’t need either of these doing, you will still be invited back in 3 years time for them to repeat the procedure as is standard.
I know it’s different for everyone, but for me, the experience was barely worth noting. If there wasn’t all the hype about it, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to write this post – but I do know that it’s very important to talk about it, to help people understand that it’s not at all a scary experience, and there’s barely a bit of pain or even discomfort for most. It may be due to the fact that I’ve had other very invasive procedures and have experienced pretty huge amounts of pain down there thanks to my previous bladder infections and operations, but my experience was not at all painful or distressing. I did also worry as I’ve only just got over my most recent bout of cystitis, and thanks to the scarring in my bladder and urethra, experience a lot of pain in that area anyway – I worried that this might effect how I felt with the smear test, but fortunately it didn’t.
Have you had a smear test done yet or written about the experience? I’d love to share it in this post so others can gain as much info as they can about it 🙂 Here are just a few posts I read prior to my test which encouraged me to get mine done soon and to understand what may and may not happen, some good experiences, some not so good, but it’s worth knowing anyway:
Where Roots and Wings Entwine
Bare Naked Mummy
Make Up Pixi3
Here You Me
For more info, this is the NHS page about cervical screening.