Smear tests, fear and why people aren't just ignorantly putting it off
Smear tests are never going to be the nicest thing in the world are they? No one really wants a tiny little brush having a good ol' swirl in your cervix. But, they're something that people with a cervix are encouraged to do at 25 in the UK, and the importance of doing it is stressed over and over again in the media.
Just a little background in case you're not familiar with it: a smear test involves a doctor or nurse taking a swab of cervical cells which are then tested for abnormalities and for the HPV virus. The abnormalities can be pre-cancer cells, or ones that are a bit more serious, and the procedure is an important way to catch cervical cancer early. Around the age of 25 in the UK, a letter is sent out to book an appointment to have this done, and after that you'll either be asked to come in again in 3 years or in 6 months to a year, depending on the results of previous test(s).
I've always been an advocate of 'wow why do people not go to these?! It's free and it could save your life, or a whole load of horrific treatment?'. That is, until I got my own letter through a couple of months ago. And I put off booking it in. I told myself it was because I didn't want it over Christmas, and then I had my period, and then I was on holiday, but if I looked deep down that wasn't the reason. In reality I was absolutely petrified.
There are so many places on social media where you see people reassuring you not to believe the horror stories/negative experiences you read. And whilst, yes, it's important to stress this, I've never actually seen anyone discuss having a horrible experience with it, but these 'reassurances' made me feel all OH MY GOD SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE HAD HORRIBLE EXPERIENCES.
There's also a whole lot of reminders that we all need to get a grip and get over ourselves because having someone look at your vagine isn't as bad as cervical cancer. Which again, is totally justified.
The problem is that neither of these points tackle the truth that is that going to an appointment that is solely based around whether or not you have cancer is absolutely terrifying. Instead, girls who don't go are almost branded as lazy or ignorant or too concerned with their own vagina based vanity to get over themselves and let someone swab them.
I was totally in that category of not understanding why people don't go, and it really did take it coming down to me having my own letter to realise it. Even down to a minute before I opened it you could have asked me if I'd book myself straight in and my response would have been something along the lines of 'well, obviously?!'. I've also had very similar tests done in the past for a different issue, so I knew exactly what to expect with it, how I'd feel during, and after (physically). Because of those tests I also don't have any qualms about letting a nurse at me because wow they see so many vaginas a day what do they care about your one? And I still didn't book it.
The real, deep down reason that's very hard to admit (especially in the face of the media shouting at you for being wrong in not booking an appointment immediately) is that I was simply scared. When I was a kid my sister had cancer and since then other family members have suffered with it, with my granddad passing away a few years ago because of the dreaded c-word. And although, yes, I'm fully aware that it doesn't mean any result I get would be positive, it does mean that I've seen the effects it has, and the idea of having it myself is terrifying. That idea isn't one that you have to face very often, but a smear test is one thing that forces it on you, or at least it did for me.
The fact that it's mentally challenging isn't explored enough or stressed enough: you're not weak or stupid for not booking in as soon as you get your letter. It's so important to do (and I'm so relieved I went today), but taking your time to come to terms with it is okay. It's also not only tough for a lot of people who have dealt with cancer first hand, but also those who have suffered from sexual assault, or even OCD/anxiety around cleanliness and medical procedures.
Today I felt brave for heading to my test, and I think everyone who goes should feel the same way. The nurses are incredible, and every one that has performed a similar test on me has been great, with today's experience fitting right in to that trend.
The first thing the nurse did today was talk me through the different processes of what would happen after the test in terms of how the cells would be tested, when I'd hear results, and what would happen in each possible test result. She went through talking about any concerns I'd had, if it was my first one, and explained all of the instruments that would be used. I was then asked if I'd like a chaperone for when the test was conducted to ensure I felt safe and as comfortable as possible with what was happening.
On to the actual test, she pulled the curtain around the bed, with her on the outside and asked me to take everything on my lower half off, pop on the bed and place some paper over my stomach. If you wear a skirt/dress it can feel more comfortable to not have to strip down completely, and a little more in control if you're nervous. After that, it was go time. You shuffle your heels close to your bum, open your knees and the nurse pops the speculum in. This isn't overly comfortable (especially when they winch it open a little), but it's not painful. The little brush is swirled around your cervix for 15 seconds and then it's all over. This basically feels like a period pain, and can last for a couple of hours afterwards. Once this was done, she removed the speculum, gave me a pad (the test can cause a little bleeding), and warned me that it might set off a period as I'm due on fairly soon. The whole time she let me know I could stop for a breather, or a chat or just completely end the whole procedure, and I really was on and off the chair in a minute or two.
Now I've got a couple of weeks to wait until I get my results, but I'm not feeling too anxious: there's nothing I can do about it in the meantime. A smear test isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, but I think we should all be proud of ourselves for going and getting something genuinely scary done. I've spent the rest of the day treating myself, taking things slowly and making sure I feel okay (mentally and physically), and I think we should all have a special day after our smear tests to thank ourselves for getting through it.