I am probably alive today because of a smear test.
Without one it’s quite likely I would have cervical cancer and have had to undergo aggressive treatment or worse, no longer be here.
Cervical cancer is mostly preventable.
Thanks to smear tests.
A smear test, also known as a pap test, cervical smear or cervical screening, isn’t like a check-up at the dentist to make sure you don’t need any fillings.
They are so, so much more important. They could save your life but apparently, women have been avoiding going to their appointments.
Since I am acutely aware of the benefits of keeping to your smear test appointments, and have also had a lot of them, here are the ins and outs of why you should go and everything that will happen to you when you do.
Disclaimer: Before I go on I need to make it clear that I am not a medical professional. I am just someone who has had a few abnormal smear tests before, CIN 3 pre-cancerous cells (the stage before they become cancer) and the LEEP procedure to remove those cells. All of this advice and information is based on my own personal experience with the subject matter. Always consult a qualified doctor or health practitioner. No responsibility is taken for any action or lack thereof on your part as a result of this information.
Although hopefully, this will cause you to get your smear test done!
Everything You Need to Know About Smear Tests
What is a smear test?
A smear test is a screening process in which the doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix and then they send them away to be tested.
Why do I need a smear test?
Smear tests screen for cervical cancer. What they’re checking for are any abnormal cells, or signs of abnormal cells, in the sample that they take.
Most of the time they now also test for the HPV virus too when doing the screening due to the strong links between HPV and cervical cancer.
Note: You can have abnormal cells and get cervical cancer without having HPV. You can also have abnormal cells and get cervical cancer even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine. You can get HPV even if you’ve had the vaccination too.
In short, don’t assume you’re fine. If you have a cervix, you should get a smear test.
When should I have a smear test done?
In England the NHS offers free smear tests to women over the age of 25 and if no abnormalities are found you will then be checked every 5 years going forward.
There have been some cases in England before of the NHS forgetting to send letters telling people when they’re due to go for screenings, such as with the almost 450,000 women who never received their breast cancer screening reminders.
For my first smear test, I was sent the letter to go but then they lost the results. I assumed I was fine as I didn’t hear anything but actually my results were never checked.
I’m not insulting the NHS in any way by saying this. I think those of us from the UK should be incredibly grateful that we have free healthcare. If you’ve ever spent long periods of time outside of the country you’ll understand why we should be so thankful for this.
But we also need to take responsibility for our own health and if you know your smear test is due contact your GP and make sure you get your results through afterwards as well.
Why is it so important I have a smear test?
It’s so important to have regular smear tests because they can detect the early signs of what could develop into cervical cancer.
The cell changes the pap smear tests for, if left untreated, are what become cancer. However if spotted early these cells can be removed by a variety of methods, such as the LEEP procedure that I had done.
In short, it’s so important you get a smear test because it could prevent you from getting cervical cancer.
What if I’m embarrassed about having someone poke around down there?
Apparently, 80% of women say the reason they put off smear tests is because they’re embarrassed so you’re not alone.
As comedian Russell Howard pointed out apparently a lot of the embarrassment comes from us worrying what others will think of our vulvas (that’s the external bit that in casual conversation we usually refer to as our vagina but the vagina is in fact inside. The vulva is made up of the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora and clitoris. The lips and outside bits basically).
I think a large part of the problem and reason for this is that most straight women haven’t really ever seen any other vulvas before. It’s just not how being a straight female usually works.
A lot of women haven’t even seen their own.
The first time I ever saw what another woman’s bits looked like was actually on Naked Attraction (If you haven’t watched it do yourself a favour and click on that link now. It’s hilarious and it will also show you that women’s private parts come in all shapes and sizes. There’s such a wide variety of how lady bits look, you are almost without a doubt not weird in any way).
Can I get a woman to do it?
Yes absolutely, you can request that it’s a female doctor who performs your smear test.
And if it makes you feel more comfortable and means that you will actually go and get checked then absolutely go for it but even if it were a male doctor I promise you they wouldn’t be thinking anything about your bits either.
They’re performing a health test on you and that’s a body part. No different than if they were looking in your throat.
What do I need to know before my smear test appointment?
You can’t have sex for 48 hours before as foreign bodies inside you, yes I mean penises but that also includes sex toys too, can affect the results.
You also can’t get a smear test while on your period if it’s heavy. If you have a light flow they may still allow you to go ahead but much better to try to book your appointment for the middle of your menstrual cycle (about 14 days from the start of your last period).
Does the smear test hurt?
No, not really. It’s certainly not pleasant but it doesn’t really hurt.
The doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina (they have a variety of sizes so no need to worry it’ll be too big or anything).
And then once that’s in place they put a swab in and take a sample of cells.
You will experience a slight scraping sensation which isn’t nice and you will quite likely bleed later that day but it’s far less unpleasant than having a hysterectomy would be or dying so #worthit ????
Do abnormal test results mean I’m going to die?
No, well at least probably not from that right this instant, we’re all going to die one day.
There’s a spectrum of abnormal results you could be informed of having as a result of a smear test; from borderline abnormal cells to severe (high-grade) changes.
The advice you receive as to what to do next will depend on which of these results it is that you get.
If your results are anything other than normal make sure you follow through on what your healthcare provider tells you to do in a timely manner.
This isn’t something that should be put off. Whilst there is most likely no need to panic if you get an abnormal result (I should know, I’ve had a few) not following the recommended course of action and any treatment suggested could result in cervical cancer.
In fact, all reports I can find seem to indicate that Jade Goody ended up dying of cervical cancer precisely because she didn’t go back for follow up treatments after receiving an abnormal smear.
She was scared. Which is understandable. But is fear worth death?
What is the follow-up treatment from an abnormal smear test
If the cells were only slightly abnormal your doctor will just recommend monitoring the situation on a regular basis, i.e. having more frequent smear tests.
Make sure you go to these appointments.
If the changes look more severe you will be referred for a colposcopy where they check in more detail as to the extent of the changes.
Smear tests are just a screening procedure and they take a small sample so they can’t tell if anything worse is going on until they have a closer look in the colposcopy.
In fact, my cells had shown as borderline abnormal in one smear then 6 months later, when I had a follow-up, they showed as mildly abnormal but due to the repeated abnormal smears I was referred for a colposcopy.
I had CIN 3 pre-cancerous cells. That’s the stage before they turn into cancer.
The smear didn’t pick up that they had changed that much, only that there were abnormalities so it is important that if it’s recommended you go got a colposcopy that you go, and soon. You don’t really know what’s going on there until you do that.
Once you’ve had the colposcopy if things look abnormal they’ll take a biopsy which is what tells them the stage of the cells.
If you have high-grade changes, like mine were, you will then have a couple of options of treatment available to remove the cells.
What if there’s a long wait to get a smear test?
This point is more for those in the UK as a long wait time sometimes occurs on the NHS and I saw a lot of people responding to articles that the Jade Goody effect had gone to say they had to wait months to get an appointment for a smear so weren’t bothering. A few things on that:
1. Book it anyway
Even if the wait is a long time better to get tested in 2 months than not at all. Book the appointment now and then see if there’s anything you can do to get another one sooner.
2. Try a sexual health clinic
The free sexual health clinics we have in the UK also do smear tests and if you go to one of their walk-in sessions you don’t even need to have an appointment in advance. Just tell them what you want when you go.
Heads up, when sexual health clinics have their walk-in clinics they only see a set number of people in those few hours and tend to fill up quickly. Best to get there 30 minutes before the doors open to be one of the first in and guarantee your place.
3. Go private
If you really can’t get into your GP or sexual health clinic to get a smear test, go private. It will cost you £100 or so which I know is a lot of money but this is your life we’re talking about.
You won’t be able to use any of those clothes, Sky subscription or meals out if you’re no longer alive. This should absolutely be a priority, both in terms of your time and finances too.
What puts me at risk of having cervical cancer?
Sadly, simply having a cervix puts you at risk of cervical cancer but there are certain situations that increase our risk too:
1. Being sexually active
If you have slept with anyone, ever, there is a risk you have HPV and HPV is thought to significantly your chance of getting cervical cancer although there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.
2. Getting pregnant
The hormones produced during pregnancy increase your risk of cervical cancer therefore if you’re planning to get pregnant it’s a good idea to get a smear test before you start trying so you know you don’t already have any abnormal cells going into the pregnancy.
3. The contraceptive pill
This is a controversial one but from everything I’ve read from reliable sources, the contraceptive pill increases your risk of cervical cancer by as much as having HPV. Not surprising really considering as it pumps you full of hormones. Horrifying that no doctors ever mention that when prescribing it though.
Please don’t put off going for your smear test. I probably don’t even know you but I mean this plea from my heart.
Please, please go get your smear test done.
At least 6 of my friends have had abnormal cells picked up by smear tests. Having abnormal cell changes in your cervix really isn’t uncommon and spotting them early could quite literally save your life.
I know it’s scary but it is much better to face the fear of getting a smear test done now and any treatment you might need than the potential alternative of one day finding out you have cancer.
Disclaimer: Once again just a reminder I am not a medical professional just someone who really, really wants you to go get your smear test done and therefore wants to share with you everything I know from my own experience.
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