I expected to turn 25 and be greeted swiftly with a letter from the NHS telling me the time and date of my smear test appointment – a cervical exam of which I would have no say. A bit like that really painful, terrifying injection we all got at secondary school which has left the majority of us with a nice pearly scar on the top of our left arm. Cute.
Turns out it’s as easy to forget to go as it is to forget to send a birthday card. No, but seriously.
One of my earliest memories of the smear test (which, according to the NHS is ‘a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Detecting and removing abnormal cervical cells can prevent cervical cancer’ and is available for all women in the UK aged between 25 and 62, every three years) came from my A-level English Literature teacher.
Now i’d like to say she was a fine specimen of a teacher, one who helped me achieve everything I was capable of and more, but she didn’t. At the time I thought she was amazing, so amazing that I even invited her to my 18th birthday party, naturally, mostly because she didn’t mind if I swanned into lessons late because of a last-minute McDonald’s cruise. Aside from telling us all that the smear test was incredibly painful and harrowing (it’s not BTW), she also told us on multiple occasions that cocaine was pretty much the best thing in the world. So that’s nice and responsible. She went on about the smear test as if it was something to be feared, like a gigantic toothy monster attacking your vagina.
When my letter came in the post a few weeks after my birthday, advising me that I was now ‘invited’ to attend a cervical exam, I was told I needed to ring my local GP and make an appointment, and that was that.
I’d assumed it would be a bit more like WE’VE MADE THIS APPOINTMENT FOR YOU AT THE HOSPITAL AND YOU HAVE TO GO BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT AND CANCER AND LIFE. And, honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed. I get much more hammered by the health profession to have a flu jab every year than I did for getting a smear test. And the chances of me getting the flu, it progressing to pneumonia and me dying seems pretty damn unlikely.
Then I saw that only 600 women in the UK die from cervical cancer every year. And then I was like, oh, that’s like no-one ever. Then I put the letter away and carried on with my life.
It sounds ridiculous I know, that’s still 600 women who leave behind families every single year, but compared against something much uglier, like bowel cancer, which claims 16,000 British lives annually (one in 20 of us will be diagnosed with it in our lives), it feels minimal, and I honestly put that letter down thinking ‘i’ll get round to this at some point in my life’ rather than ring my GP with urgency.
It was only a couple of days later when we were painting the hallway (which is about as exciting as being in a spin class for three hours straight) that I remembered Jade Goody. And yes, despite not being Jade’s biggest fan, it was the memory of what had happened to Jade that made me think FUUUUUUUCK, I should do this. Oh, and this story too.
So I went to my GP and had a nice, friendly nurse have a poke inside me. What does it feel like? Like someone twisting something around your cervix, which is exactly what it is.
I’ve had a handful of STD checks in my adult life (because i’m a safe kinda gal like that) and it didn’t feel much different – except there was no sneaky HIV blood test, obvs.
The same embarrassment that your vagina is out and about, the same piece of tissue paper to hide your dignity is still there and the same mild discomfort is there. It doesn’t hurt as such, it’s more like 10 seconds of irritation.
I found out that my cervix is turned, which is fun for us all – although apparently very common and has no effect on fertility, child-bearing abilities etc etc – and also meant that I had to put my fists under my bum to prop my cervix into the right position for the exam. Fun, right?
I’m still awaiting my results and i’m sure (99 per cent sure, 1 per cent sure i’m dying of cervical cancer thanks to Daily Mail horror stories) i’m absolutely fine.
I just sort of wish it had been less of an option and more of a YOU HAVE TO DO THIS attitude from the NHS, because it makes me wonder about how many people are putting it off because they’re not being forced to go.