Demystifying smear tests: there is no reason to be embarrassed

Originally published in The Student newspaper. 

According to a recent BBC article, around three million women across the UK have not attended their NHS-recommended smear test. A 2017 survey found that 35 per cent of women were too embarrassed to go because of insecurities surrounding their body shape, 34 per cent because of insecurities involving their vulva and 38 per cent over concerns with the smell of their genitals.

Despite so many people missing their regular screenings, the test is extremely necessary. According to the BBC, 854 deaths in 2016 were due to cervical cancer, with 2,500 cases of the cancer being recorded in the same year. It is one of the most common cancers found in women below the age of 50.

The risk is entirely preventable. The reason for smear test screenings is to test for abnormal cells in the cervix that may indicate cancer. Around 1 in 20 screenings demonstrate some form of abnormal cells. These cells are then lasered off at a later appointment, thus preventing them from developing into cancer at a later stage.

The NHS used to recommend screenings every three years for all women over 12 years of age. However, with the advent of the HPV vaccination, this age has been pushed up to 25 years old, with younger women not required to go to regular smear test screenings. Trans men with cervixes are also invited for screenings.

However, if you are concerned that you may have some of the symptoms of cervical cancer, which include unusual bleeding, pain and discomfort during sex, unusual discharge, and lower back or pelvic pain, then it is recommended that you seek out your GP. Perhaps one of the main causes of people not attending their screenings is the uncertainty that surrounds it. Not many are aware of what actually happens in a smear test. The NHS recommends booking a test in the middle of your menstrual cycle. The actual test itself is quick and typically only takes around five minutes to carry out.

A speculum is inserted into the vagina to open its walls and then a small brush is used to gently collect some cells from the cervical wall. The NHS website states that while the procedure is not painful, some patients do report feeling some discomfort. And that’s it! Five minutes and you’re done. A little discomfort and two weeks to wait until the results come back. While the screening may be uncomfortable, it is extremely necessary to make sure that you are safe and are at minimal risk of developing cancer.

If these facts have not calmed your nerves about attending your first check-up, there are still some tips that may help. Why not try going with a friend? Or treat yourself to a nice day out or a meal afterwards? Nothing can be that bad when food is involved.

While getting smear tests may not seem like something that is that pressing, and while it may not be a requirement for some people at their age, it is something to keep in mind and it is important to not let age stop you if a concern does arise. Staying in tune and aware of our bodies is essential in ensuring that we remain safe and in charge of our health. Many things that are medical and health-related can often carry a sense of embarrassment and fear which is inevitable when encountering something new, especially when that concerns spreading your legs for a complete stranger. But a procedure like this is quick and painless, and worth the small dose of embarrassing discomfort for the sake of your own health.

If you are feeling really nervous, it is best to let the nurse know – they can talk you through everything that will happen. Don’t put fear or embarrassment over your health and safety. Those five minutes are better to tackle than to just put off not knowing.

Image: BristleKRS via Flickr 

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