It's been six years since my first cervical cancer screening – and I wanted to update this post because it is still such an important topic. In the years before my first test, I remember watching Jade Goody on Big Brother. It really affected me to see how cervical cancer, and the lack of testing for young women at the time, ripped her life apart and devastated her family. What scared me the most is that cervical cancer can be such a hidden disease, often with symptoms not starting to show until it's too late for many of the most effective treatments.
It's a topic that affects me hugely – my grandmother died of starvation eventually following a long battle with oesophageal cancer. Sadly it was discovered far too late because she ignored her symptoms. It might not be the cheeriest thing to talk about – but I think talking about it is so important to help raise awareness. If talking about what happened to my nan gives one person the push to seek treatment, it's worth it. But luckily for cervical cancer – there is so much that can be done now including free testing that can alert doctors if you are showing signs of abnormalities.
Why am I talking about cervical cancer screening?
Okay let's start by saying – women's health is a subject that definitely isn't talked about enough growing up. Throughout my time as a kid and teenager – I look back now and am shocked at the lack of education surrounding women's bodies and health. Our sex education was severely lacking, but even more important, women aren't taught to be in-tune with their bodies. We are not taught of the connections between different parts of our bodies. Where is the focus on the importance of checking our breasts, knowing our vaginas and talking about cervical health? As an adult, I have educated myself on so much. But I believe so much needs to be done much earlier in our lives.
I want this post to be a resource to support young people who are approaching the age of cervical screening. Or for any other self-care, wellness and health concerns you might have. After all – one of the reasons I have been able to travel for so long around the world is because I do look after my health. Good health is the most important thing we can have in this world and it's something we should treasure. This doesn't mean just accepting and taking it for granted, but rather doing the research and spending the time getting to know ourselves, and our bodies. It also means taking responsibility for our health and ensuring we are preventative in our lifestyles, while taking every opportunity for healthcare checks.
What is cervical cancer screening?
We are so lucky in the UK, because cervical cancer screening for human papillomavirus is available free of charge to those most at risk. There are many countries that do not offer this and cannot help to identify the disease early on. Cancer Research says: "The NHS cervical screening programme invites women aged between 25 and 64 for cervical screening. Screening also applies to other people within this age range who have a cervix, such as trans men. The screening test aims to pick up changes early that could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated." Up to six months before you turn 25, you will receive a letter from the NHS informing you about your screening and prompting you to book in.
Why do I need it?
Not everyone diagnosed with cervical cancer will have symptoms. Things to look out for include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain during sex or vaginal discharge. But cervical cancer is a disease that can easily cause serious problems before you even suffer symptoms. By getting regular screenings, your doctor can check for any early cell abnormalities. If any are found, it is a relatively straightforward procedure to have these removed and a lot less traumatic than later treatment.
A big concern of mine is the women who skip the screening because of fear or embarrassment over taking their knickers off for the doctor. I understand why the thought might be scary. But you have to weigh up your concerns with the fact that this simple two-minute screening could be saving you from much bigger and scarier things. For the sake of just getting your lady bits out – it could save your life. Cervical screening wasn't readily available when Jade Goody (and many other women) were developing cancer and sadly, it couldn't save their lives. We are so lucky to have this opportunity to look after our health – don't throw it away.
My experience of cervical cancer screening
I received my letter around three months before I was due to go travelling for the first time. I tried calling up to my doctor's surgery to book in but unfortunately they had a waiting list for appointments. It was when I went to get my final vaccinations for travel that my nurse asked me about my screening. I told her I had been unable to get an appointment for before I leave. She asked me if I would like to have it done during that appointment. I was in the room for around 15 minutes total – this included 2 rounds of vaccinations and my cervical cancer screening. We were joined by another nurse and they asked me to take off my bottoms and knickers and lay back on the examination bed.
I had to put my feet together just behind my bum and spread my knees apart – not the most elegant position. Then the nurse added some lubricant before inserting the speculum. This is probably the worst bit – it has to stretch your cervix opening which can be uncomfortable. It wasn't at any point painful for me – only uncomfortable. Then a long piece of metal was inserted in the speculum to take a swab from my cervix. This part feels a bit weird as you can feel something rummaging inside you – but again not painful and it only lasts a few seconds. Then everything is removed and you wipe yourself down and get dressed. If you've ever had an STD test where swabs were taken – it feels exactly the same.
What should I expect from my first cervical cancer screening?
Don't let the thought of a pap test intimidate you – remember the more you overthink it, the worse it becomes. I was lucky and had no time to mentally prepare for mine as it was spur of the moment. But for anyone who has a few weeks or even months to prepare, here's what you should expect.
- You will get your letter several months before you turn 25 – book in asap as there is sometimes a wait-list
- Kind nurses who will talk you through the process and even hold your hand if you're scared/embarrassed
- Staff who have seen it all before – nothing will surprise them so you have nothing to be embarrassed about
- To be unsure whether you should keep your socks on or not – I still haven't worked it out but I keep mine on!
- Cold metal and lube will be a shock when it touches you for the first time
- It will be over quicker than you think! I've never had a screening that lasted longer than 5 mins!
- You normally receive the results within 2-6 weeks – call if it takes any longer to chase results.
- You will either receive a "normal" result – or if you have any HPV cells they will be assessed for changes/risk.
- Don't worry if your results aren't normal – it doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer – just that you have cells that could develop into cancer. This can be treated or monitored in a number of ways.
Does it hurt to get a cervical cancer screening?
For most women – no it doesn't hurt but it may feel uncomfortable. It's important to be able to relax. The more you tense your muscles, the more likely it is to hurt or be uncomfortable. I do want to stress that I understand while I was lucky and experienced no pain. For some women it can be a less pleasant experience. This is either because they feel uncomfortable or anxious, or because it is physically painful. Remember, everyone's body is different so that means some people will struggle with this more than others. However, for most women, the level of pain/discomfort is not enough to prevent them getting a screening. As I mentioned previously, it's a very quick process if you're relaxed and it can easily be over in less than five minutes. If you've ever had an STD test where swabs were taken – it feels exactly the same.
- Read: Cancer Research – 6 things you need to know about cervical screening
Tips for getting over fear/embarrassment
I know one of the biggest issues for women who don't book their screening can be fear or embarrassment over having the test. I totally understand feeling a bit intimidated at the thought of laying there with your pants off and legs akimbo while a doctor or nurse takes swabs. But honestly? The thought of the experience is very different to the real thing. When you're having the screening – it all happens so quickly that you don't even have time to feel awkward. But, if you're really struggling to book your appointment, try these tips:
- Talk to women in your life who have had it done – your mum, sister, aunt, friend – and let them reassure you.
- Watch Youtube videos that talk about it (if you don't have anyone you can speak with)
- Read blogs and articles about the process and cervical cancer – reinforce the importance of going.
- Remember: the nurse also has a vagina! She also sees vaginas all day long!
- Take your friend/mum with you to hold your hand if you're really nervous.
- Try meditation and breathing exercises – they can really help with relaxation and stopping any panic.
- Read: A beginner's guide to mindfulness and meditation
Great resources for you to explore:
- Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust – the UK's leading cervical cancer charity
- Cervical cancer symptoms and signs | The Eve Appeal
- Cancer Research – Cervical Cancer
- Cancer.gov – What is Cancer?
What will happen after my appointment?
You'll be free to have a giggle with your girls about the whole experience over a glass of wine. Afterwards, you may have a slight tummy-ache or feel slightly uncomfortable. It's nothing a hot water bottle won't fix. It definitely doesn't compare to period pains so don't worry that you'll be agony. I know it can be more painful for some women. But for most, you may experience some light spotting which is totally normal. Give yourself time to relax and recover. Then you will receive your results within 2-6 weeks depending on where you live. You will either be given a "normal" result, or "inconclusive" if the sample needs to be re-done.
If you have any cells that are concerning to doctors, they will either remove these. Or they will monitor them depending on the scale and how high risk you are. If you have a normal result, you might not need another screening for 3-5 years. Those with high risk HPV cells might be called in again sooner. But this is nothing to worry about – it just means you have cells that could potentially turn into cervical cancer. But this is a very early stage and may at most mean you need the cells to be removed.
If you do receive your letter for your first cervical cancer screening. Let me be the first to urge you to have it done. It's no-one's idea of fun, and yes it can be awkward or uncomfortable. But we are so lucky to have this test available. It saves lives and it could save yours. The difference between catching these cells early and late. It could be the difference between a long and happy life, or it being stolen from you. For the sake of a 5 minute swab test – it's 100% worth any embarrassment you might feel for peace of mind.
Have you had your first cervical screening? How was your experience? What advice would you give to anyone who is scared to get their first one?
*first image credited to Thought Catalogue