‘Smear.’ It has to be one of the least exotic words in the world. I don’t know why they can’t call it something a bit less… grim. Perhaps they could remarket it as a cervical MOT ? Or, given that the actual action of a smear is twizzling a little brush (as opposed to smearing something), we could rename it the Twizzle.
Alas, I digress. I imagine all adult women are aware of smears, and know vaguely what they do. To sum up, a smear is a little test of the cells around your cervix, which is done to screen for abnormal cells. 1 in 20 smears will come back with something unusual, but that’s not something to worry about. Most of the time, such results will not lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own. However, in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be treated to prevent them becoming cancerous.
Nearly 3,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. I don’t need to remind you of Jade Goody, who died of cervical cancer aged just 27. Cervical cancer is most common in women aged 30-39. Smear tests can catch the signs of cancer early, enabling you to get treatment as soon as possible. They could be the difference between life and death.
I was chatting to a couple of friends about smear tests the other day and both confessed they had been putting them off – partly because they were scared, and partly because they were embarrassed. So, in order to dispel myths and encourage you to go, I shall walk you through the smear test I had last week.
I rocked up at the GP, feeling slightly nervous. My GP is absolutely lovely and she sat me down and explained that she would be using a speculum – an instrument inserted into the vagina to hold it open and give a good view of the cervix – and then a small brush to take the sample. I lay down on the bed, legs akimbo (I believe some GPs use stirrups but mine didn’t), and she gently inserted the speculum. It’s not particularly comfortable, but it’s not painful. She then opened the speculum up a bit to get a decent view. I made a joke about getting a poster of Ryan Gosling for the ceiling. Then she took the brush, and gently turned it 360° in my cervix. It was a bit of a strange sensation, but again – not painful. Two minutes later, it was all over. Speculum was taken out, I hauled my knickers back on, and away I went.
Easy peasy, no fuss, no muss. Not scary, not painful, not embarrassing, and not remotely traumatising. I was in and out within 10 minutes. A week later I got a text telling me that my results were all clear.
So to address the things that my friends were concerned about: firstly, fear. It’s not scary, I promise. The doctors and health professionals that do smear tests know what they’re doing. It doesn’t hurt at all, and it’s over in five minutes. For those of my friends that were embarrassed, let me remind you that the people doing this chose it for a career – therefore they have seen a thousand vaginas before you, and will see a thousand vaginas after you. Yes, our vaginas are personal spaces, but they are also part of our anatomy that needs routine maintenance or checks. Think of it clinically - your GP will be. It’s not something anyone does for a hobby (unless, you know, you’re into that) but if you can grit your teeth and be brave for 5 minutes, it could save your life.
Cervical smears are done every three years for women aged 25-49, though some areas do start screening earlier than that. If you’re 25 then you should have received a notice about coming for your first smear. It you’re younger and you’re concerned, speak to your GP. They may well be able to book you in for one.
I urge you, ladies, to go get a smear. You may not enjoy it, but you won’t regret it.
For more info, have a look on the NHS website.