How To: Have A Smear Test

image: @auralewis on instagram via @visforvulva

This year was the year that I turned 25. A quarter century, quite literally mid-twenties.

If you had asked me 10 years ago I would have said that in my 25th year I would almost definitely have my shit together. Own a property, have a steady relationship, be in a high flying career and y’know just be lush and completely successful. I would sashay confidently in power suits whilst parents of small children would say things like “mind that lady” as I swept past with my, aforementioned shit, perfectly together.

The truth, of course, is that I am nowhere near the property ladder, renting in East London with 3 of my mates and Harry the cat.  I’m still not entirely convinced I have made the most fruitful career choices for myself, spend the majority of my income on ASOS and cheap white wine and as far as relationships go I am pretty sure RSI from swiping left should be a medically recognised condition. I am confident and lush though, and successful in most things I put my mind too. Oh, and a parent did say “mind that lady” once, even if it was because I was in Sainsbury’s looking like a hungover mess and tripped over a crate of milk whilst clambering to reach the reduced area. You can’t win ‘em all. There is one thing that I knew would be guaranteed in my 25th year, however, and that was the letter straight from my GP advising me that I was now eligible for my free cervical screening test.

“There is one thing that I knew would be guaranteed in my 25th year, however, and that was the letter straight from my GP advising me that I was now eligible for my free cervical screening test”

God bless the NHS. The note came a month before my birthday suggesting that I went to my registered surgery and made an appointment at the next most convenient time for myself. A Smear test (or Pap test) is something I had already talked about in passing with some of my friends who had been, for the first time, more than once, or just not at all. But to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it until the letter with my name arrived.

So, what is a Smear Test?

Basically, cervical screening is the method of checking for abnormal cells on the cervix (the entrance to the womb from your vagina). Detecting these type of cells can be a method of preventing cervical cancer.

What can I expect to happen during my test?

So when I went for my first test I honestly freaked the eff out, and I really had no need to. My nurse could not have been nicer and after a second attempt with her making me relax with a quip about needing a medicinal glass of wine to stop being so tense, the whole thing was quick, painless and honestly so simple.
“A lot of women are anxious when it comes around to having a smear test,” says Rachael Foster, Training Nurse, “they really believe it’s going to be painful. The smear itself takes no longer than 2-3 minute to carry out and is no different to having any other swab taken. A lubricant is used when inserting the speculum so it goes in easily and without any difficulty.”
You are more than welcome to ask for a female practitioner or a chaperone for your appointment too. Or take a friend or a family member, maybe they can buy you that glass of wine after if you’re feeling particularly nervous!

Who needs one?

What scared me the most when I started to research cervical screening tests was the amount of misinformation that young people seemed to have about the process and what they could expect. As a result of this, Rachael says that people in their twenties is the age group she sees the least of; “Personally, most patients I encounter coming for their smear test are the older generation, so we do need to educate young women about the process and encourage them to come forward and have their tests done.”
All women who are registered with a GP will be invited for the test from 25 – 49 you will be asked every 3 years, from 50-64 every 5 years and then aged 65 plus, you will be invited if you have recently had abnormal tests. Trans men who have a cervix and are still registered as female will also be invited for screening, or Trans men who are registered male can organise the test themselves with their GP. If you’re under 25 and you’re experiencing bleeding between periods, pain and discomfort during sex or unusual vaginal discharge, you can also ask your GP for a smear.

What happens if my results are abnormal?

Before you leave your appointment always double check with your practice how you can expect to receive your results, sometimes you have to contact them. A small number of patients will be told that their results are abnormal, which does not mean that you have cervical cancer. All it means is that a small percentage of the cells that have been taken have come back with unusual changes. You will be invited back for further tests and to check for HPV. From there you might be asked to monitor the situation, coming back in 12 months for another smear, or invited to the hospital for another examination called colposcopy, which looks at the cervix more closely.

Anything else I need to know?

Try to book your appointment when you’re in the middle of your cycle, so you’re not bleeding, otherwise, the test can’t be completed. If you do feel any discomfort, let your GP or Nurse know, they can make sure it doesn’t hurt.
Don’t be embarrassed or fearful, a smear test is normal, common and nothing to be anxious about. Take some deep breaths, whack your knickers off and chill out. Looking after yourself should be your No.1 priority, and with smear tests preventing 75% of cervical cancers from developing in the UK it means that staggeringly 5000 lives are saved every year. That’s a lot of women just doing their goddam best.
So in my 25th year I may not entirely have my shit together but knowing that doing something as simple and easy as getting my cervical screening test done could quite literally be saving my life, I’m one step closer, right?
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