If you are a female in your 20s, you'll probably be aware of the cervical cancer screening programme (previously called the smear). Chances are you might have had one, if not multiple and if you live outside England, you're even more likely to have experienced it.
In Wales and Scotland, women were invited to have their first smear test if they were sexually active (vom, I hate that term) at the age of 20, so if like me you're 23/24, you're due for your second.
The way women are invited to have their screening has changed and now if you were born after September 1st 1993 you are no longer required to attend a screening until you're 25 years old, in keeping with England's system as the chances of having cervical cancer under 25 is so rare.
Cervical cancer screenings are performed by a nurse in your local GP every three years and here's a fun fact for you - I had my second one this afternoon.
After mentioning where I was in a Facebook chat with friends, it became apparent that whilst we're all the same age, some of my friends have NEVER had their smear test, let alone their second so I thought, after being there today, I'd do a post on why I have attended mine, what happens and why I think they're important.
The Initial Push;
I'll admit, the thought of the smear did not appeal to me at all (does it to anyone?) and I probably would have put it off if it hadn't been for my Mum. Being 20 and not being able to drive and having a real aversion to speaking to people on the telephone, my mum booked me the appointment and took me there so really I had no chance to opt out.
But for my second appointment today I actively booked it myself and drove myself - all perfectly calmly and with no trepidation. The idea of the procedure is much worse than the appointment itself, as is normally the way. I live exactly 10 minutes away from the Doctors (perks of having a drive plus box) and my appointment was at 2pm and I was home at 2.16 so really, it's the quickest meeting you'll ever have. I even had time to ask her questions about other things.
So what happens in a cervical cancer screening appointment?
Essentially you go in and see the nurse, she asks you a couple of routine questions and then asks you to strip from the waist down. She pulls a curtain around you (and locks the door lol) whilst you change and then asks you to lie on the bed. If you've ever watched One Born Every Minute, when they examine the women and ask them to put their legs up and relax their knees? That's essentially what you do. It feels really undignified and it feels really awkward but the nurses know this and they chat to you and don't stop talking until it's over (honestly I think it took a minute maximum?)
Essentially the nurse uses an instrument called a speculum to hold the cervix open and then uses a small brush like tool to take a few cells to test. Let's get into the nitty gritty here, it doesn't hurt. It feels a bit uncomfortable because it's a sensation you haven't felt before and it's embarrassing but it isn't painful. The instruments are lubed up within an inch of it's life so if anything, it just feels cold.
And that's it, over and done with and you just get dressed and leave and wait for the letter with your results to drop through the post.
Why It Is Important;
The screening doesn't test for cancer, it tests for abnormal cells which can then be tested and removed if necessary, hopefully before it turns into anything nasty.
Nobody likes appointments like this but they are so important to attend. You think it won't happen to you but what if it does and you didn't catch it because you didn't go to your screenings?
I think of it this way; we all know someone or some family that has been affected by cancer. Of all the people who get it, of all the people whose families it affects, of all the lives it ruins, of the all people who don't survive it; for lots of them it is either detected too late or is treated aggressively or even has no treatment at all.
I will (maybe not happily) put up with 2 minutes of discomfort and 5 minutes of embarrassment every three years because at the end of the day don't we want more cancers to have tests and to aid treatments? I owe it to the people in my family and other people's families that didn't get the treatment or the tests until it was too late.
Your imagination is the worst part of the whole appointment and it's just a bit awkward. But hey, it's over so quick.
However, there are definitely some things you can do to make the experience as less stressful as possible, things I did this time that I learned from the first.
Tips For Your Cervical Cancer Screening;
1. Google it. Your letter does outline some things but a quick Google will put your mind at ease for a few things. Things like you should book halfway through your menstrual cycle and if you use lube in your sex life you need to stop using it 24 hours prior. Cute.
2. Don't book it on your period. It sounds self explanatory but ya know, if you've never had one before you just don't know. If you take the pill or you know when you'll start your period to the day you can book it in advance but if you don't, the easiest thing to do is wait until you HAVE started and then book it for a week or a fortnight later.
3. You CAN book in advance. If your GP is anything like mine you can't get an appointment until the day you need it and only if you call at 8.30am. However for this one, you can book in advance hallelujah.
4. Request a female nurse. 99% of the time this will be automatic but it isn't always the case so if you want one, just ask.
5. Wear a skirt. Or a dress. If you do you can keep it on during the appointment and it makes a huge amount of difference to how you feel.
6. Wear leggings not tights. I dunno about you but the last thing you want to be doing is faffing with tights and not laddering them. Leggings are soft too.
7. Wear thick socks. GPs can be cold and doctors beds can be cold. If you're already half undressed you want to stay a little bit cosy and wooly socks make a difference.
8. Make sure your shoes are easy to take off. You already under pressure to change quickly, you don't need to be 25 minutes taking off your shoes. Some slip on boots will do the trick (and will hide your fluffy socks from the outside world).
9. Consider your underwear. Totally up to you but I wouldn't necessarily want the nurse to see my Harry Potter pants, I want to feel like a well together adult. Also anything lacy or something that'll give you a wedgie might not the most comfortable afterward. Truth.
10. Shave or wax. There is nothing worse than getting your kegs off and thinking shit my legs look like a mammoth's.
11. Wear a watch or a bracelet or a ring. Basically anything within reach that you can fiddle with. Having something to do with your hands is important.
12. Take someone with you. I actually preferred going alone because driving home gives you something else to concentrate on (anyone else find that thinking about what they did is worse than having it done) but if you have a weak stomach and you think it might mix you up a bit, take someone with you to drive you home.
13. Talk about it. I feel like it's something me and my friends don't talk about which is weird considering how much girls divulge and all the gory details of everything else we discuss. It should be talked about and to remind those who haven't had it done that they should and put to bed any fears of those who are nervy.
14. Don't avoid it! I think it's such an important appointment to attend and when the thought is worse than the reality, it'd be a real tragedy not to attend when it could really help.
15. Go home and indulge. Whack the trackies on, get under a blanket, have a big sugary cup of tea, watch some telly and get some junk food in. Treat yo self cos after all, it's not fun being a girl all the time.
So if you're due a cervical cancer screening and you haven't booked it or you've never been for one and you think you should have, ring your GP in the morning and get checked. And then tell all your friends about it.