health

What To Expect At A Smear Test

I’d like to start by saying that this is only my experience and that everyone’s experience of getting a smear test will be different.

A smear test (medically known as a cervical screening) is used to check your cervix for cell changes, which can be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). In the UK, you are invited for your first smear test at the age of 25, and if your results are normal, you should get a smear test every 3 years. I remember receiving my letter in the post inviting me to my smear test a couple of months before my 25th birthday two years ago. I knew it was coming and I called my GP to book myself in more or less straight away, having read horror stories about people putting it off with dire consequences.

I didn’t really feel too nervous until I was in the waiting room. I had wondered if it would hurt, given that there is still a silly amount of scaremongering about smear tests. Before being invited for my test, I didn’t know much about how it all works, so I did a bit of reading before to prepare myself. As a sexual assault survivor, I was somewhat anxious about being triggered, but I was able to keep reminding myself how important it was and I managed to put those feelings aside until the actual procedure. One thing I advise if you are a survivor is telling the practitioner who will be carrying out your screening. You don’t have to give details but it is helpful to let them know because then they can support you and know to expect that it might be a difficult experience for you.

The actual screening itself usually consists of you lying on a bed and bending your legs with your ankles together and knees apart – sometimes there will be stirrups but I didn’t have them in my appointment. A lubricated speculum is inserted into your vagina to allow the practitioner to see your cervix. Once the practitioner has a good view of the cervix, they use a small brush to take a sample of cells from it. This is the part that I’d heard everyone complain about. Personally, I found the speculum the most uncomfortable part, but I didn’t find it painful. The actual brushing part lasted about three seconds and felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but again I didn’t find painful at all.

The nurse talked me through everything she was doing, which I had requested due to my past experiences. It is good practice for the practitioner to talk you through the procedure anyway unless you request not to be told. My legs were shaking like crazy to start with, but mentally I managed to get myself in the zone. The whole screening lasted a few minutes and I was honestly surprised at how quickly it was over. It’s normal to have a little bit of spotting afterwards, but you shouldn’t experience any pain – if you do, then get in touch with a doctor. 

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I got my results in a letter after a couple of weeks and they were normal. Occasionally they will find abnormal or pre-cancerous cells, which results in either another screening or a colposcopy appointment, followed by treatment. 1 in 20 people will have abnormal results, but less than 1% of these people will have cervical cancer, so try not to panic if you’re told you have abnormal results (easier said than done, I know).

It’s very easy to put off booking your smear, but it is incredibly important. More than 99% of cervical cancer cases are preventable. Your smear test isn’t a test for cancer, but it is a test to help prevent cancer. Anyone with a cervix is at risk of developing cervical cancer, especially aged 25 to 49. This applies if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, if you’ve only had one sexual partner, if you’re lesbian or bisexual, and so on. As I said above, my experience is only one of many, and I had a good experience. Not everyone will have a perfect experience, but at the least, you can be reassured that it doesn’t last more than 5 minutes.

If you’re super nervous about your smear test, definitely check out the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website (linked below); they have some fab tips for how you can prepare and how you can make the experience as easy as possible. But whatever you do, please don’t put it off!

Helpful links:

  • Zoe Sugg has just started a ‘Smear Series’ on her IGTV where she’s filmed her experience
  • Katie Snooks’ YouTube video covers her experience with cervical screening, her abnormal results and the treatment she had for this. There are a plethora of YouTube videos of people’s experiences with smear tests.
  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has info on what cervical screening is, results, the procedure, etc.
  • The NHS website has easy-to-read info about cervical screenings
  • Cancer Research Statistics for more statistics like those used in this article


Words by Amber Berry for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online
Image from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust

We Need To Talk About Vaginismus

There are so many sprawling aspects of women’s lives that the patriarchy impacts every day, and that it continues to impact in complicated and fractured ways. One of the most important of these, to me anyway, is the sex lives of women. It’s one of the reasons that I love that Anthem does this sex education week every year.

We’re not told so many things, and there are so many things not discussed, and our voices have been silenced for so long, that it is hard to break the cycle and to begin these conversations.

One of those conversations is vaginismus.

Vaginismus is a condition that affects 1 in 500 women in the UK. It is an involuntary tightening or contraction of the vaginal muscles around the opening of the vagina. It can make sex, or putting a tampon in, painful, difficult, or even impossible.

How painful women often find sex has only recently become an issue of public discourse, but even these conversations are limited. There are so many reasons that this might be the case, and even within vaginismus, there are layered and multiple reasons.

The complicated part of the condition is that it is psychological. Feeling anxious about sex can cause it to occur, but once it has occurred once, the nerves that it will occur also play a part until you’re nervous about feeling nervous about feeling nervous.

It can also occur randomly. You could have years of painless sex before it happens. Or alternatively, you might suddenly stop experiencing it. It can occur for a multitude of reasons, some including;

  • You have a bad sexual experience or medical examination
  • You feel bad about sex
  • You have fears and worries about your body
  • You have a painful medical condition

There are a few different options in getting treatment or help. Some focus on your body, i.e. your actual vagina, and getting it used to having things inside it, and some focus on your mind, and your feelings around sex.

As ever, the NHS website has plenty of advice, and you can always go to your GP. But, from one gals personal experience, the way I thought and felt about sex was transformed by a very kind and caring partner, who just wanted to make sex fun (and sometimes funny) for me, and who has such a healthy attitude towards sex that it influenced the way I think, feel, and talk about it.

I’m still learning, but it feels like the conversation is starting. At last.

You can find out more on the NHS website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginismus/ 

Words by Sian Brett for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.

My Journey To Body Acceptance

My body and I have been through a lot. As a trauma and self-harm survivor, my body has really been put through the mill over the years. I have punished my body and it has been punished by others.

As a teenager exposed to The Sun, I saw the Page 3 models and felt ashamed of my flat chest and seeming lack of ‘curves’. I was surrounded by girls at school who had developed breasts much sooner than me, and I had an A cup until I was 16. The girls in the magazines all had thigh gaps, so I became obsessed with how my thighs touched. There were no images of scars, stretch marks or spots in the media. We had no talk at school about how our bodies would change over time. All of the women on the telly had similar body shapes and types. There was no one telling me that my body was okay.

The older I get, the more I decide to push back at the beauty standards placed upon women by a patriarchal society, the media, and diet culture. I’ve largely stopped giving a shit what other people think about my body. I have stopped putting on a face of make-up every day, which I only ever did to look ‘presentable’ for others. I shave when I want to and not because I feel I should. I wear clothes I like and feel good in. I wear a bra if and when I want to. I eat when I want and need to, without thinking about how my body will look as a consequence. If I’m at home I’m naked 99% of the time, which now feels so empowering and freeing to me.

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I convinced myself a long time ago that I was on a journey to self-love, but actually, it has become more about body acceptance and neutrality. Sometimes it is hard to love our bodies; they often let us down and don’t do what we want them to do. Seeing my body for what it is, what it has done for me and what it continues to do for me, enables me to feel at peace and acceptance with my body. My body has defended me against harm in multiple ways, has seen me through ridiculous gym routines and a restrictive diet, lets me know when I have not eaten enough or had enough water, lets me know when I am tired. Our bodies do so much for us in just one day. Learning to appreciate that has really allowed me to see my body for what it is: a vessel of life. My body is not here to be looked at or enjoyed by other people.

I feel that social media has been pivotal in my journey to body acceptance. The influx of social media ‘influencers’ who are unapologetic about the appearance of their bodies has not only allowed for more representation on our feeds but there is also more discussion about how harmful the beauty ideals placed on us are, which inspires us to let go of them. Seeing images of so many different types of bodies helps us to realise that we are all perfectly normal, no matter how we look. Hopefully, this can lead to us letting go of shame surrounding our bodies.

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If like me, you are striving to be at peace with your body, there are so many wonderful resources right at your fingertips. I can’t list them all, but here are just a few of my favourite Instagram accounts who help me feel like I’m okay:

@selfloveliv
@wheelchair_rapunzel
@kenziebrenna
@meg.boggs
@bodyposipanda
@bodyimage_therapist

I want to acknowledge that as a white, slim, able-bodied woman, I fit into eurocentric ideals of beauty. I realise that this also means I can see people represented in the media who look like me. As someone relatively free from physical illness, my body allows me to move as I want, which is not the case for people with chronic and physical illness.

Words and Images by Amber Berry for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.

The Lionesses

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I have been thrilled at how the World Cup has been received here in the UK. Record after record was broken, people were talking about it at work and at home and it felt like there was a real buzz in the air. Could this be it? Could this be the time we win? 

Unfortunately it was not to be, and after Tuesday’s heartbreak (and truly I have spent time mourning that loss), I think it is important to reflect on the impact that the Lionesses have made this past month. I wrote before about the Change The Game initiative launched by the BBC at the beginning of May and how excited I was by this prospect. But my expectations have already been exceeded and it’s only the beginning. 11.7 million people tuned in to watch the Semi-Final, just over 50% of the audience share and the most watched programme this year so far, what a result! 

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I have been far more emotionally invested in this World Cup than I thought I would be, but I think that’s because it has been a real watershed moment for women’s sport. When I was growing up (which wasn’t too long ago – I’m not that old), the only time you could see women’s sport on the TV was Wimbledon or the Olympics. Now, across the country there are little girls turning up to football training sessions wanting to be the next Lucy Bronze, Ellen White or Nikita Parris and that just shows that representation does matter. 

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My friends at work and I have been talking about it. Gearing up for every game. Talking about the one that was on the night before. I even got a wall chart (cool right?). I hope that enthusiasm continues not just over the summer but for years to come (anyone fancy going to watch the Euros in 2021 with me?!). The moment that really solidified what an impact this team have had on women’s sport came on Wednesday when I heard an interview on Radio 5 Live. A 17 year old boy called Abe had phoned in when they were talking about Tuesday night’s match, and he said that at the beginning of the World Cup he and his mates laughed at and mocked women’s football. But on Tuesday they were all down at the pub cheering them on, getting annoyed at VAR when the decision went against us and cheering VAR when it went our way. At the beginning of June, he knew nothing about the team, now he knows all their names and the teams they play for and he’s looking to watch the Women’s Super League come winter. Now isn’t that an achievement! They may not win the World Cup but they have changed people’s hearts and minds like you wouldn’t imagine and that’s arguably bigger than any trophy. Although I would still like to see them bring that bronze back!!

Catch the third place play off live on BBC One at 4pm!!

Radio 5 Live: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0006sq4 

Photo credit: @Lionesses (Twitter)

Change The Game

As I was scrolling through Twitter one evening, a post from hockey legend Kate Richardson-Walsh caught my eye, in particular, the accompanying hashtag #ChangeTheGame. It turned out that it was a new initiative launched that evening by the BBC to promote and broadcast women’s sport, and I’ll be honest, I cried a little bit.

I watched the video with it’s reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, and I was transported back to all those summers when I was glued to the television watching the Olympics, seeing Kelly Holmes get her double gold in Athens and screaming with glee when GB got their hockey gold at the Rio Olympics and all the PE lessons and sports clubs I got to be part of. It felt like women’s sport was finally being recognised for the powerhouse that it is.

I have always loved sport, whether that was practising my bowling for rounders by drawing a target on the side of our house (much to my mum’s annoyance), playing badminton with my friends every Monday all through our GCSEs, the hockey I still play now or the dodgeball in the sports hall when it was the end of term or raining just a bit too much. I have always found it to be a joyous thing, whether you’re learning a new dance routine in the middle of a field dressed all in pink and singing ‘Baby Shark’, or coming together after someone has been injured to cheer them up and check they’re alright. There is always something good that comes out of it – unless of course you’re the one now sitting on the bench with an ice pack.

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As with anything that promotes women’s sport, there were the usual comments about how it “isn’t as good as the men’s”, how “it’s only because the BBC can’t afford to show the good sports” or that “everything will suck except for Wimbledon”, but do you know what, who cares about those comments? The fact that thousands of women and girls and men and boys will get the opportunity to watch some fantastic sport proves that we’re winning the argument.

A terrifying percentage of girls stop participating in sport once they reach puberty which can have huge impacts on their mental and physical wellbeing as well as narrowing their options in life. Even if they catch one game, one match this summer and hopefully beyond that, it might just encourage them to keep going, to find a new sport they love where they can make friends and feel empowered.

I understand that sport isn’t for everyone, in fact, some people actively avoid it like the plague but it can be such a powerful thing, whether you’re running by yourself, playing in a team or watching on TV. We saw the hype that developed last year with the Men’s Football World Cup; how it managed to bring everyone together, and excitement and anticipation hummed through the air, especially at a time when everything feels so fractured in our society. We have the opportunity to recreate that this summer with the Women’s Football World Cup, which began on the 7th June, or the Netball World Cup, the Ashes, or the World Para Athletics Championships. Hopefully, there will be something for you to enjoy and maybe even get involved with.

Useful Links if you’re looking to get involved:

https://parasport.org.uk/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/get-inspired/25416779

 

Words and image by Eleanor Manley for Anthem Online.

Wellbeing and Winter

For a lot of us, it can be difficult to feel on top form during the colder months. Even if you are a winter fanatic, love all things Christmassy and get excited about what comes with the new year, it can still be difficult to manage wellness on cold and gloomy days. So, in anticipation of the winter blues/January blues/Monday blues/basically any unwanted blueness, I’ve worked up a checklist of things to help prioritise our wellbeing this winter.*

((*Note: This article isn’t medical advice. If you’re looking for more specific mental health material – check out the links at the end!))

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Diet and Nutrients

No, I’m not going to tell you to chuck out all the Christmas choccies! This isn’t about having an immaculate diet; what I suggest here is just keeping a mental note of when you last said ‘Hi’ to some fruit and veg. As we head into December and beyond, it can be tricky to keep on top of doing a healthy food shop – especially when there are so many tempting treats. Indulgence is fun, especially in the festive period, but do make sure to balance it out.

Our digestive system and brain are linked by the vagus nerve, and long story short (and all science averted because I don’t really get it), what we eat contributes to how we think and feel. As good old Saint Nick gets ready to do the rounds, by all means, head to the Quality Street! The praline triangles aren’t going to steal themselves. But remember to get in those greens and some vitamin C too. Similarly, because we lack so much sunlight during this time of year, if you’re someone who gets particularly down in the darker months, it could be worth picking up some vitamin D as well!

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Exercise

NO GYM REQUIRED. Fear not- this isn’t a you-must-start-a-spinning-class-and-go-to-boxercise-every-day article. Just get out and about. It doesn’t have to be a lot and it doesn’t have to be the same thing each time. In fact – the more variety the better. If you’re someone who likes exercise or sport then fab! Doing what you enjoy is a great way to get out of the house. It can be gross to go into *nature* when it’s cold and wet and windy, but when the weather is relatively calm, jump at the chance to go out and explore. Anything from a quick stroll to a little micro adventure to a local park.

Remember the Vitamin D we talked about earlier – making the most of the daylight hours is key when it is of limited availability. If you have a hobby that you can adapt to doing outside then use it as an excuse for a change of scenery. For example, photography or other artistic pursuits are a great way to explore outside and get some exercise in at the same time.

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The Power of Plants

There’s a lot of research to show that plants can have a positive effect on us. Having some greenery or flowers around the place can be a mood booster. Equally, having to care for a plant reminds us to care for ourselves. When we’re watering or feeding the plants, and making sure they get enough sunlight, it’s a casual reminder to make sure we pay attention to our own needs. Caring for something else and having that small responsibility with plants can also make us feel good and remind us that we are accomplishing things even if they’re small. (Also, they look really cute!!) 

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Another thing about FOOD

If you’re someone (like me) who finds it a drag to prepare food when your wellbeing isn’t amazing, here are some ideas. Find foods that minimise prep time and are good for you. For instance, yoghurts require zero effort and can be eaten whenever. Also, consider fresh veg and fruit that is in season and doesn’t need a lot of intervention. (And when you do feel like making stuff, stews are great, because they use all the in-season veg, you just leave the pot to do its thing, and you can freeze portions for ages.) Lastly, meal replacement powders (not weight-loss ones – just complete nutrient ones) could also be a solution for some people – I find them handy when my work schedule is a bit crazy or if I don’t have the energy for a big food shop.

In the new year, when everyone’s insisting they’ll start going to the gym, hating going back to work, and remembering how cold February is, this can all be handy to remember. Having quick fix food around that is not just junk food makes it much easier to look after yourself.

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Reach out!

We shouldn’t leave it until we’re actually feeling unwell or not taking care of ourselves to reach out to others. Make sure you check in with your loved ones over the winter period. This can be especially important if you live away from the rest of your family or are a university student away for the holidays. Reach out to close friends and make an effort to get together, or at least call for a catch-up.

Socialising can be difficult to organise over the Christmas period when people can be quite busy and public transport ceases to function, but come the new year when everyone’s aligning themselves with the ‘normal,’ it’s really important to make sure you’re maintaining those connections with people.

Depending on individual needs, doing what you love either solo or sharing it with friends can give you some well-needed space to relax – which does wonders for wellbeing.

Remember not to put your wellbeing on hold just because normality gets a bit suspended during Christmas and New Year, and opportunities to get out and about can seem to dwindle during winter as a whole. When considering your self-care regime, factor both your physical and mental wellness into it!

 

I hope this gets the ball rolling with some ideas you can utilise for maintaining wellbeing this winter. Below are some further sources of wellbeing advice, and also more distinct mental health resources:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/wellbeing/#.W_24Yq2cbPA
https://www.wellbeingnands.co.uk
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/what-wellbeing-how-can-we-measure-it-and-how-can-we-support-people-improve-it
https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/things-to-do-this-weekend-to-boost-your-mental-wellbeing_uk_5bd2d714e4b0a8f17ef6413f?utm_hp_ref=uk-wellbeing
 

Words by Lauren Barnard for Anthem Online.
Images from Be Brain Fit, Mental Health Zen, Garden Collage, The Best Brain Possible and Practice Business.

Welcome To The Sex Bus

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have a positive experience of sex education in school. Either from it lacking any real information or because it ignores key issues such as consent, and LGBT+ issues. This is largely due to sex education not being part of the national curriculum and schools being left to decide how much they want to teach, if anything at all. Sex is still a taboo subject and our desire to keep young ears and minds protected is harming young people as they enter into adult life unprepared.

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However, not all sex education has to be like this. It can be a positive and inclusive experience, as we have seen this week, which actually does what it says it’s going to do – I was very fortunate that this was my experience.

My sex education lessons started aged 9 and continued throughout my time in school until the age of 16, getting more in-depth as we got older. We covered a wide range of topics; from the usual how to put condoms on, to the signs of an unhealthy (and healthy) relationship. Whilst these lessons did largely take place in the classroom, I don’t think I’ll ever forget walking into physics to instead be greeted by a room full of penises – we also had some more unorthodox locations…welcome to the Sex Bus.

The Sex Bus is a bright purple double-decker bus adorned with condoms, various leaflets on STIs, pregnancy, birth control, and relationships. Alongside this are sat the professionals; school nurses, family planning experts, health visitors and district nurses. Together this was the Sex Bus, and it travelled around schools across Somerset. The aim of the Sex Bus was to engage pupils with sex education and as a result increase their knowledge of sexual health issues, raise the profile of health services in the local area so that young people would know where to turn should they ever need to, to enable young people to make more positive choices concerning their sexual health and to explore gender roles, myths and expectations in relationships. All of which I think are imperative to learn at a young age, and also why I think I found it so informative and engaging.

The Sex Bus was about teaching everyone good habits and behaviour, not about shaming people who do have sex at a young age, or at any other time in their life. As mentioned, there was also information available on, and people to discuss gender roles and myths with, such as whether women can orgasm/will orgasm like you see in the movies. I think education such as this is important because it helps to demystify sex and relationships for both men and women and also demonstrates that women can enjoy sex, and not just be a participant.

However, I’m not saying my sex education was perfect, I think it still had further to go. There should have and could have been more information on LGBT+ relationships – yes there were leaflets available and it was discussed, but it was more a passing comment rather than a real discussion. Additionally, the issue of consent; again whilst talked about and discussed it was never in-depth and the real bare bones facts were never laid out clearly (although we do now have the tea video). Overall though, it was largely a comprehensive and informative education and one I believe sets an example to other schools/counties with what they can do. It shows that it is possible, and all without scarring children for life.

Words: Eleanor Manley
Image/Videos: 20th Century Fox/The Simpsons, BBC Two/Miranda, Paramount Pictures/Mean Girls.