In the UK, once a woman turns 24 or 25, she is invited to go for a cervical screening test, or a 'smear' test. They then need to be tested every 3 years until they turn 50. My 24th birthday came and went, and my screening letter arrived on my doorstep. I promptly opened it, tossed it to one side, and forgot about it.
Why, you might ask? Maybe it's down to the fact that I am notoriously bad at booking appointments; it took me 18 months after moving to actually register with a GP. But I think deep down I was also feeling what pretty much every woman feels when they receive the letter: apprehension.
And I'm not really sure. I'm quite blasé about illnesses; I don't worry about catching diseases or developing conditions. I'm pretty laid back in life and it's just not something that I (thankfully) have anxieties about.
And I knew the procedure might be a little embarrassing, but I've had several STI tests (better safe than sorry!) and from what I gather, they are pretty much the same. Yes it's an inconvenience, but it's over within minutes.
Yet I joined the thousands of women who put off having their smear tests every year. It wasn't until I received my third reminder letter, and my friend (who I share the same birthday with) booked her's, that I figured that I should just go ahead and book mine.
Smear tests are performed at your GP surgery, and are generally done by a nurse. I worried about stuff that is ENTIRELY irrelevant. What do I wear? How much should I groom? Should I shower before? Or would that affect the results?
All of this is completely irrelevant! If you want to be able to cover up quickly, I would recommend a skirt, as you can just whip it up for the action and then flop it back down again. But the nurse will give you as much time as you need to take clothes on and off, so just wear whatever is comfortable. I don't recommend fifty layers because you will probably end with something upside down/back to front.
With regards to the procedure itself – look away now if you're particularly squeamish! – it's pretty straightforward. Once I had undressed from the waist down, I lay down on the couch. They may raise the bed as necessary, so don't be alarmed if you are two feet higher than when you started! It's to save the nurses having to convolute themselves over your nether regions.
Next comes the part most people dread: the speculum. It's either plastic or metal, and is inserted inside the vagina to hold the walls open so that your cervix can be accessed easily. This may feel a little cold, and some people say a little painful, but I barely felt it at all. There is a slight pressure inside as they take the swab. It's quite hard to describe, but for me it was like a little poke, and just felt very deep? Like an 'oh, that's my cervix!' kind of response.
Bearing in mind the swabbing takes approximately 15-20 seconds, and the speculum 20 seconds to put in and out, the actual examination takes less than a minute. They will ask you some basic questions beforehand, and you can expect results within two weeks.
The main feeling I came out with is 'why hadn't I done this sooner?'. It's a relatively pain-free experience, took 5-10 minutes of my time, and meant that I can be confident that at least one part of my body is healthy. For the same reason I get STI tested, it's just for peace of mind. And it's great to finally tick off my to-do list!
If your sample has any cell abnormalities, it will be tested for human papilloma virus (HPV), and if this is positive, you will be asked to go for further testing, known as a colposcopy. There are over 100 different types of HPV, and only a few of these are linked to cancer.
My results showed 'changes to some of the cells in my cervix'. There was evidence of HPV, but this does NOT necessarily mean I'll need treatment. If you get the same response, I would please urge you to not panic at this stage. If you have low grade changes, most cases do not lead to cancer. However, a colposcopy should confirm what will need to happen next.
How did I feel about my results? A bit eye-roll worthy, to be honest! It's just my luck that this would happen. I'm glad I eventually went, because having something go undetected could be dangerous, so if I do need treatment, better sooner than later! At the same time, I know the second test is not a result of me delaying the smear, and it probably wouldn't have made a difference if I had been tested straight away.
What I will say to anyone who has received the invitation letter... just go and have it done. I felt a huge relief once it was over, and it's such a simple procedure. You may not need one if you haven't been sexually active, so check with your GP to see whether you need one or not.
My colposcopy is booked for next week, so wish me luck! It'll be interesting to have giant binoculars pointing at my vagina...