“You’ll need to shuffle further down,” the nurse said as my legs clambered on plastic stirrups. Sliding my way down the bed towards her, I looked up at the ceiling, took some deep breaths and prepared myself for the thing that I’d spent my entire adult life dreading.
According to carried out by , one in four women skip their smear test, more than 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and 900 of those women die. So why on earth are so many of us ignoring our invitations for a potentially life-saving screening?
Just one week before I walked into the nurse’s room, four months shy of my 25th birthday, I received a letter in the post inviting me to attend my first-ever smear test. When I opened the letter and read the words 'cervical screening' I freaked out and decided to call a friend for moral support.
She couldn't help me. I called another, and another and then another. Not a single one of the friends that I called, ranging in age from 24-31, had attended their smear test, and sadly it seems my pals are just one small drop in the giant ocean of women that have been avoiding their cervical screenings. In fact, one in three women don't attend their screening because of ‘embarrassment’.
And the truth is, I felt it too. I have a very turbulent relationship with my health. For as long as I can remember I've suffered with hypochondria. And not just the type of hypochondria that has me self-diagnosing a cold on Google. Even the smallest of issues can lead to sleepless nights, panic attacks and sometimes even bouts of depression. The idea of finding out that I possess the same abnormal cervical cells as the other female members of my family made me feel physically sick.
The temptation to chuck the letter in the bin and forget all about it was overwhelming. But after a long hard look in the mirror, I dialled my GP clinic, told them that I had received a letter and booked in for a cervical screening one week later.
If you’ve been putting off booking in for a cervical screening through fear of the unknown then worry no longer – this is what actually happens before, during and after a smear test, coming from someone who knows exactly how you’re feeling…
Prior to booking, a friend (one of the few that had attended her smear) advised that I opt for an evening slot so that I didn't have to worry about going back to the office if I didn't feel great afterwards.
After arriving at my GP clinic, the receptionist informed me I had been booked into a special late-night smear clinic which meant that everyone in the waiting room was also waiting for their smear. Weirdly, I found solace in the fact that the six other women in the room were in exactly the same boat as me.
When my name was called and I walked into the room, I was greeted by a nurse who was neither overly chatty or overly rude, which I appreciated. She sat me down and asked me the usual questions: ‘Have you had a smear before? When was your last period? Are you on any form contraception?’ She then explained that a smear test is used to help detect abnormal cells and that I should come back every three years to keep on top of things. She handed me a sheet of tissue paper for ‘modesty’, directed me towards a screen at the back of the room and told me to take off my bottom half. As I walked behind the screen, she said that I can expect results back in the next two to three weeks.
When I got behind the screen, I was very grateful that earlier-that-day me had decided to wear a skirt so that I could avoid awkwardly shuffling out from behind the screen half naked. When I climbed onto the bed, I popped my legs up on some plastic stirrups, laid back and mentally prepared myself for what was about to happen.
When the nurse turned around she laughed – something you really don’t want to hear from someone that has just caught sight of your vulva. “People are always too scared to come further down the bed. I'm not going to bite,” she said. At this point, I laughed, only because I felt I had to, and prayed to the high heavens that it would all be over soon.
Once I had myself in the right position, she coated a speculum in KY Jelly and cranked it open. For me, this was the most uncomfortable part of process. It wasn’t necessarily painful, but it definitely wasn't painless either. Other people I have spoken to said that their nurse instructed them through breathing exercises which apparently make this whole process a lot easier to handle.
Then she told me to expect to feel a small scratch as she inserted a small plastic-looking brush and scraped my cervix. This bearable pain lasted about three seconds. She popped her evidence into a little pot, took out the speculum and told me I was good to go. The whole thing took about 5 minutes from start to finish.
The single biggest mistake I made throughout this whole ordeal was that as I got off the bed, I put my ‘modesty tissue’ in the bin. When I went back behind the screen, I quickly realised it would have been a very handy thing to keep hold of given that KY Jelly can be a bit messy. I left the room and headed straight to the loo to sort myself out.
For one to two days afterwards, I experienced some mild aches and light bleeding, but nothing that caused too much worry. After three weeks I still hadn’t received my results so called my GP. The receptionist told me that the NHS were dealing with a backlog of results (apparently this happens sometimes) and to wait a further two weeks. Two weeks later to the day and my results came through the post to say that everything was A-OK.
While I certainly won't be wishing away the next three years, all in all, the experience itself really wasn't that terrible. In fact, as is true for most of my medical procedures, the run-up was a million times worse than the actual event itself. Was it a comfortable experience? Absolutely not. But was it worth it, and will I be booking in again? Yes, yes and yes a thousand times over. If I can do it, you can too. So book in right this second.