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.
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!
- 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