Cervical screening… Smear tests.
Not great fun, definitely not in my top ten things to do with a childfree hour or two.
However, as women, it is something that we all must do.
My first experience of going for a smear test was whilst I was still at university in Wales.
Until 2013, smear tests in Wales were routine from age 20 unlike in England, where they don’t start until you reach 25. Now they all start at 25.
Anyway my friend got a letter, and I vaguely remember offering to go together to do some mutual hand holding as we went to the university’s walk-in health centre. We were called into separate rooms (obviously) where I was told by the nurse that I was too young and didn’t really need one.
Rather than rant and rave and insist upon my rights, I did a mental high five and got the hell out of there. My friend meanwhile had been treated to her first cervical screening. When she came out her face was white, we both had a good laugh (I more heartily than her, I imagine) and went to the pub.
It was another five years before I was officially invited for my first cervical screening smear test.
I say invited like it was a party or something, but you know what I mean. There was no RSVP-ing and I didn’t take a bottle of wine. I probably did wear a dress for the occasion though.
To be honest I don’t really remember it; I’m fairly sure that it wasn’t glamorous and it was pretty uncomfortable, but I lay back and thought of England. It was over quickly, the results came back normal and to the back of my mind it went.
Three years later, I went for my second cervical screening test.
This time, the results came back and I was so sure they would be clear that the envelope lay on the side, unopened, for the best part of the week.
When I finally got around to opening the letter, the results told me that I’d had an abnormal smear.
I’d need to go to the hopital for a colposcopy where they would take a biopsy of my cervix.
The colposcopy essentially involved an elderly male doctor looking up my hoo ha at my cervix while I was treated to a vision of it on the big screen, as a kind nurse held my hand and made awkward small talk.
I won’t lie, I’ve had better days.
Even less fun than the procedure was the news that they had found CIN-3 abnormal cells, otherwise known as severe dysplasia, which sounds pretty scary.
CIN-3 cells indicate severe changes affecting the cervix. It’s not cancer, but left untreated it could become cancer.
I was booked in to have the abnormal cells removed via a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ).
This is essentially like a cheese wire, lopping off the bad cells.
Speaking to friends and colleagues, for I’ve never been one to shy away from discussing intimate health apparently, many of them had been through a similar procedure and were able to calm my nerves about it.
Due to the way the cells were spread, I was to be knocked out under general anaesthetic for the duration.
Again, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had with my knickers off but once the LLETZ procedure was done, I came around and I was able to go home the same day. I wasn’t allowed to do things like swim, have sex or do anything which could cause it to become infected.
Unfortunately, although I followed this advice, a week later it did become infected and after passing huge blood clots and fainting I had to pay a visit to A&E to have the area cauterised.
I had lost a lot of blood and was very poorly for a week or so.
That was horrible. Really horrible.
But it was still a lot better than cervical cancer.
A short time after the LLETZ procedure, a check revealed the abnormal cells had been removed.
Three years later, by which point I had my first baby and been treated to a lot of undignified moments in hospital rooms (and having had a LLETZ one of them was a transvaginal ultrasound to check if I’d need a cervical stitch, which thankfully I didn’t), my smear test showed the all-clear.
If I hadn’t attended my smear test and had the CIN-3 cells removed, I may not have developed cervical cancer.
Or maybe, just maybe, I would have.
Maybe I am one of the 75% of women that had their cervical cancer prevented by their smear test.
Maybe I would be dead.
But I’m not, and thanks to my smear test, and the NHS, I will never know.
Now here is the worrying bit: Cervical screening is at a 20 year low.
A quarter of women are not attending their smear test. That is 1.2 million women each year.
I will not sugar coat this. Women are putting themselves needlessly at risk of dying. Of leaving their loved ones behind.
Cervical cancer kills two women every day, and most of them are under 35 years old.
It isn’t a day at the fair, but it’s over quickly. It might be uncomfortable, but it could save your life. All you have to do is phone your doctor and make an appointment, make sure you’ve had a shower and turn up. Take an hour off work, take two. String it out and treat yourself to a coffee afterwards, whatever.
There really is no better way to say it.
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If you want to know more about why smear tests are so important, head over to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.