Being a female human being brings with it endless joys such as periods, birthing human children and consistently being made to feel inadequate by society, and the oh so mystical and marvellous smear test is just another HOOT to add to the list in Girl World.
But actually, a cervix-quivering one in three of eligible women hasn't ever been for a smear test, and we're gonna guess that's down to either forgetfulness, laziness or most likely, fear. For some reason, cervical screenings have a rep as being one of the worst experiences of all time but err… actually, they're really not.
There's no terrifying Victorian implements being shoved up your vagina, there's no big scary man staring at your pubes, and there's absolutely no WALL SCRAPING involved, alright?
So here's everything you actually need to know about smear tests to clear up all of the confusion, reassure you that it's not horrific, and remind you exactly why you NEED to get it done whether you like it or not.
What am I doing this for, then?
Cervical screening, or a smear test, is simply the doctor taking a sample of cells from your cervix, which the boffins in the science labs then examine under a microscope. A smear test isn't to see whether you HAVE cancer - it's to see whether your cells are changing, and if you're likely to develop cancer in the future. It's GENIUS and science is cool af.
Detection of anything bad doesn't even necessarily mean the C-word, because some cells change back without treatment. But successful treatment of cells that could mean bad news usually prevents cervical cancer from developing at all, so going for one of these could genuinely save your life. No joke.
Ehhh, I still don't know.
LISTEN, YOU. It shouldn't even be a question. Around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in UK each year. Regular cervical screening provides a high degree of protection against developing cervical cancer and this magical service is offered to you for free.
It is estimated that early detection and treatment through cervical screening can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing in the UK. Why would you NOT go? Are you crazy?
Alright, am I eligible for one?
To be invited for cervical screening in the UK, you firstly need to be registered with a GP who needs to have your current address on file. The age of invitation varies slightly across the UK, but currently it looks a bit like this:
- England, Northern Ireland & Wales: Women aged 25– 49 invited every three years
- England, Northern Ireland & Wales: Women aged 50– 64 invited every five years
- Scotland: Currently, women aged 20–60 invited every three years. From June 2016, women from age 25 will be invited.
If you fit the bill, then a letter will drop onto your doorstep to let you know that you've got to get one booked. It's like HOGWARTS. But even if you're a bit young to get the letter quite yet, it's important for you to know what it's all about and to know that it's NOT scary or anything to worry about. Alreet?
What actually happens on the big day?
First and foremost, the whole thing is super speedy, painless and NOTHING to worry about.Of course, it's a little bit uncomfortable because y'know… you're having something put up your vagina (soz), and you've got a doctor/nurse looking at your bits and bobs. But OH WELL, we're all friends here and - repeat after us - this could Save. Your. Life.
All in all, the appointment usually takes no longer than around 20 minutes, while the actual procedure is only a teeny tiny three minutes. In the UK, practice nurses take the majority of cervical screening samples, though sometimes it will be taken by a GP.
Don't forget, you're allowed to take a relative or a pal with you for support, and you can request a female nurse to do the dirty work if it'll make you feel more comfortable. Girl power etc etc.
Before they get started with the swabbing, the nurse will explain exactly what is going to happen, what she's going to actually do, and answer any questions or concerns you may have to chill you out as much as poss.
The actual proceedure, and wtf is a speculum?
So now it's time for the MAIN ATTRACTION, woo woo, hoorah, oh happy day. You will be asked to undress from the waist down (top tip: if you are wearing a skirt you can leave this on and just remove your knickers) and to lie on an examination bed on your back either with your legs bent up or with your ankles together and your knees apart.
Now comes the good stuff. A paper sheet will be placed over the lower half of your body, and your nurse will then insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. Some clinicians may use lube on the speculum, which will make it easier to slide right on up there.
The speculum will be gently opened inside your vagina, which then allows the nurse to see the wonder that is your cervix. You've basically become a tourist tunnel for a few minutes, which is nice.
Sidenote: One size does NOT fit all. Speculums come in different sizes, so you can ask for a smaller one if you are feeling like your poor old vagina is struggling. The nurse will probably be able to tell which one suits you the best, though.
The nurse will then use a teeny tiny brush to collect the sample from the area by sweeping (not scraping), before then packaging it up to send off for examination. You can sort of feel it, but sort of not feel it. It's a bit of an odd sensation, but it ain't painful.
AND THAT'S LITERALLY IT. Bada bing, bada boom.
Does it hurt?
Everyone's body is completely different, so it's only fair that we tell you that for most women, cervical screening is not painful. Instead, we'd probably go for the word 'uncomfortable'. Remember that your vagina might one day push out an actual human child, so a relatively small thing like this just no biggie for it really.
The only way a speculum isn't going to fit up there is because you're so tense that your vaginal muscles are working OUT, but this can be remedied by consciously relaxing and trusting science that it isn't going to hurt.
However, if you do experience any pain or other problems during your smear test then please do let the doctor or nurse know. You may have some very light bleeding for a day after the procedure, but that's normal.
What if I'm on my period?
The best time for a cervical screening to be taken is in the middle of your menstrual cycle, halfway between one period and the next, if you can. This enables the cytologist to examine the best possible specimen and achieve the best possible report. Most GP surgeries will ask you to book the test yourself, so remember to take your cycle into account before you book your screening test otherwise they might send you home and you'll have to psyche yourself up all over again.
I'm still worrying about it tbh
That's alright, don't beat yourself up about it but really try to remind yourself that it's completely normal, and not a big deal. Most women get anxious about cervical screenings before going for their first one, and after it's done and dusted they're all wondering wtf they worried about for so long.
Top tips to keep in mind
- Don't have sex 24 hours before your screening, as sperm, spermicidal gel and lubricants may make it difficult to get a good sample of cells from the cervix. Keep AWAY from the sperm.
- If you have been prescribed vaginal pessaries to treat an infection like thrush, then postpone your screening for at least a week after the treatment has finished.
- Do not use a tampon for at least two days before your screening.
- Speculums come in different sizes so you can ask for a smaller size if you are uncomfortable
- If it is your first time or you're feeling nervous, tell your sample taker. The more relaxed you are, the less discomfort you will feel.
Getting your results
The length of time taken to receive your screening results can vary, so when you have your screening it's a good idea to ask how and when they will let you know your test result. NHS guidelines reckon it should be within two to six weeks.
If there are no abnormalities seen (the test is 'negative' and everything is tickety boo) you will be sent a letter confirming the result. A negative results means you will be recalled to do this fun stuff all over again in three or five years time. Occasionally, your results will be inconclusive because there weren't enough cells collected etc etc, so you'll have to pop down again for another one. Ugh.
Sometimes the specialist looking at your cervical screening test will feel it would be a good idea for you to be reviewed by a hospital doctor, but remember that that's the whole reason that you're doing this. Don't be scared about it. An abnormal screening result RARELY means cancer.
Between 90% and 94% of all screening tests are negative.
So basically, in a nutshell, in conclusion etc...
DON'T STRESS ABOUT IT. Every year, around 5 million women will be getting this done with you (well not actually with you, that would be weird, but you know what we mean) and the horror stories about smear tests just ain't true. What is true is that cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 30.
Show your cervix a good time and do not put off getting it done, because it doesn't hurt, it's not scary, you'll get to witness a SPECULUM in real life - but most importantly, this test could save your life.
NOW READ THIS LOT TOO