Smear Tests: What You Need To Know

3.3.17

smear test cervical screening nhs HPV cervical cancer appointment checks kirstie pickering blog blogger bloggers life health

WARNING: this blog post contains a lot of explicit vagina chat. And trust me, it ain't the sexy kind.

S M E A R  T E S T S.

Yep, that dreaded envelope that you find on your doormat every 3-5 years, asking you to pop in to see the nurse and have a little cotton bud wiped around your cervix. Sexy, huh?

As I nudge towards 25, my first such envelope arrived last month and I booked my appointment the very next day. Although I knew it wasn't exactly going to be the most enjoyable 10 minutes of my life, health tests like this are really important to me.

So what exactly is a smear test? A smear test, or cervical screening as it's now coined, involves taking a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix. The sample is then sent to a lab and checked for abnormal cells. These cells aren't necessarily cancerous, but they could develop into cancer if left untreated.

The test is to look for types of human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV. This might sound familiar because there was a big hoo-har around a decade ago about bringing in vaccines for teenage girls and whether or not they were safe (and if I remember correctly, I was part of the first school years to have the injection). The trigger to action by the government was, of course, Jade Goody's death. The space between her diagnosis with cervical cancer to her death was just six months.

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, which is actually a very common virus that most people will unknowingly be infected with at some point of their life as it can be passed through sexual activity. There are lots of different types of HPV and usually your immune system just gets rid of the abnormal cells, but sometimes they can lead to cancer.

Before the appointment
First, it's important to know you can't be on your period for your test, and you should tell the nurse or person you book your appointment with beforehand if you're pregnant or have had a hysterectomy. Also, I specifically asked to have a female nurse to do my test when arranging my appointment - it just made me feel more comfortable. 

I'd recommend wearing something loose that's easy to whip off, so I went for a dress and leggings - the dress made me feel a little more covered up, although once she's down there you're not really thinking about flashing too much flesh, believe me! It's also recommended not to use any vaginal medication, lube or other cream 48 hours before your test because they can affect the sample taken.

What happened in the appointment?
The nurse welcomed me in and asked me a few questions, such as whether I'm sexually active, if I'm in a relationship and if I've ever been tested for sexually transmitted infections/diseases.

She beckoned me behind a curtain, where there is a long sun lounger-style bed (not quite a poolside Bali vibe, though) and asked me to take my leggings and pants off, and then pulled over the curtain to give me privacy. While the curtain was closed, I needed to sit perched on the edge of the bed end, put a big bit of kitchen roll-style tissue over my lap, lay down and prop my feet up by my bum with my legs akimbo.

Like I said, not the most glamorous of blog posts.

The nurse then came back round the curtain and sat on a chair at the end of the bed when my bits were getting an airing. Honestly, I thought I would be really embarrassed but that wasn't the case. As much as a computer is a day-to-day thing for an office goer, a vagina is commonplace to these nurses. And strangely, that piece of tissue stops you seeing what she's up to and eliminates some of the stress of the situation.

She then inserted a speculum (sort of like small tongs) inside the foof and gently opened it probably around 3-4cm, so not much at all when you think that one day you will probably push a whole human out of there! This was the part I was most nervous about, but there was no pain and it was just a little uncomfortable. She did her swabs using a long cotton bud looking thing and it was all over.

From inserting the speculum to removing it was probably around 30 seconds, if that, and my whole appointment lasted about 5-10 minutes including chats about how to check your breasts for lumps (why don't they teach that stuff in school instead of algebra?!) 

What's the verdict?
If you say you haven't got time for an appointment, make time - this can save your life. If your doctor's surgery doesn't have an early and evening service for appointments for those working full time, you can book in to have the screening at a sexual health clinic for whenever suits you.

Not booking an appointment because you're embarrassed also isn't an excuse - remember my computer/office worker analogy. They don't care if you have weird flaps or a birthmark or a shaving rash - the nurse is there to test your health and make sure you haven't got any nasties lurking in there. If there is something in there that shouldn't be, it's much better to know sooner rather than later and get rid of those buggers!

When the next letter landed on the doormat to tell me I was all clear for another three years, the relief felt amazing. The technical wording was: 'The cells in the sample from your cervix looked normal. This means your risk of cervical cancer is very low at this time.'

And that is that. All over til 2020, when another suspicious looking white envelope will arrive to invite me to go through it all over again. As I've said, this is pretty graphic in detail and not like anything I've written about before, but that was even more of an incentive for me to - I couldn't find anything online as detailed as this prior to my test, and that made it all the more daunting. If this little post encourages just one gal to book their appointment, that's all the justification I need!

If you want to learn more about cervical screening, click here.

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