February 1, 2019, marks the day I walked into my doctor’s surgery and had a smear test for the first time.
Although it might not necessarily sound like a big deal, for many – and, I’ll admit, me for a short period of time – it is exactly that. A big deal.
Because while smear tests play a pivotal role in detecting cervical cancer, there’s just something about the embarrassment of bearing all to a nurse that prevents women from attending their appointments on a daily basis. And it has to stop.
With smear test attendance in England at its lowest in nearly 20 years, it’s vital that we break past this stigma and encourage women – all women – to attend their cervical screening appointments.
I’ll be honest with you, when I first got the letter in the post inviting me to my check-up, I was nervous. Having never had a smear test before, I think the fear of the unexpected caused my mind to conjure up all kinds of worrying scenarios.
So much so that I actually delayed booking my appointment. The letter first came through in October – six months before my 25th birthday – and as you can see from my attendance date, I put it off for nearly four months.
In hindsight, after having had my appointment and knowing what I do now, that was stupid of me. Why would I risk my health for the simple fact that I was nervous about a nurse looking at my lady bits, something nurses are prepared to do every single day?
But as much as I can say that it was a stupid decision on my part, it remains true that there are thousands of other women who are doing the exact same thing. We’re risking our health for nothing.
Which is why I want to talk about my own experience of my first ever smear test, in the hope that I can encourage even one person who’s been putting off booking the appointment to do so.
As soon as I walked into the nurse’s room, I was immediately put at ease. The nurse was friendly and chatty; she invited me to sit down while talking me through the process.
Knowing it was my first time, she asked if I wanted to see the equipment that would be used so I – being as nosey as I am – obviously said ‘yes’. She then spread it out on the table for me to see and talked me through each one.
After asking if I was sexually active, the nurse then turned to me, laughed and said:
Now, as you can see, the speculum is smaller than the average sized penis so it’s nothing to worry about at all!
From that point on, the appointment felt much less scary and I knew that the nurse was doing everything in her power to calm me down and make me feel comfortable.
Then it was time to hop on the table and let the nurse do her job. With everything that she did, she explained clearly and asked if I was okay at every available opportunity. And then it was over.
That was it. Sure, it was a slightly strange sensation but it wasn’t painful at all and was over in less than a minute. That’s less than the time it takes to brush your teeth, or scroll through social media before you go to bed.
And if that one minute gives me the peace of mind that everything is fine, or detects something that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, with the potential to save my life, then I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
One woman who knows just how pertinent this is is Calley Bingham, a 27-year-old from Glastonbury who was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago at the age of 25.
Cervical screening can prevent 75% of cervical cancers from developing but it's also really important to be aware of the symptoms and speak to your GP if you are experiencing any ➡️ https://t.co/n6k6IIR3Yz #CervicalCancerSymptoms #CervicalCancerPrevention pic.twitter.com/aSeTVocc2C
— Jo's Trust (@JoTrust) February 1, 2019
Calley, a mother-of-three, had displayed some worrying symptoms throughout her third pregnancy – including pain during sex and excessive discharge. However, she was told they were simply symptoms of pregnancy and were nothing to worry about.
The 27-year-old claims she had been experiencing symptoms even before her pregnancy, and had asked to be given a smear test on several occasions in the years leading up to this. However, because she wasn’t 25 – the age at which women are invited to attend cervical screening – she says her requests were denied.
After giving birth to her son in May, Calley was diagnosed with cervical cancer five months later when a nurse realised something wasn’t right during a coil fitting. The nurse called for a test when a small piece of Calley’s cervix came away during the fitting, indicating something was wrong.
The 27-year-old told UNILAD:
I went to get the coil fitted and a small piece of my cervix came away with the clamp the nurse had fitted during insertion of my coil. She sent that piece of cervix away because she was concerned, and two weeks later I had a phone call to say that the hospital would like to see me ASAP.
I went with my mother on October 14, my dad’s birthday. Mum went into the corridor and threw up when we received the news that I had cancer.
After her devastating diagnosis, Calley underwent a radical hysterectomy to remove the top part of her vagina and cervix, her womb, fallopian tubes and pelvic lymph nodes. Since the cancer had also spread to her lymph nodes, she then had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Calley described the consequences of having such severe treatment as ‘devastating’, saying:
The chemo made me feel so poorly, like a really bad hangover for about three days after each session. The radiotherapy, along with removal of my lymph nodes, caused lymphedema in my left leg, so my left leg is twice the size of my right and at high risk of skin infection if I cut it etc..
I have to wear a compression stocking on that leg every single day and go to the hospice for therapy for it also to keep the size down. I have also recently been told I have vaginal narrowing/shortening due to the radiotherapy, which was devastating for me.
Calley has also started the menopause, which she says has been ‘incredibly hard to adjust to’. Not only that, but she has damage from radiotherapy to the bottom of her spine and hip, and struggles with diarrhoea daily.
So while the mum-of-three is now two-and-a-half years cancer free, her journey has only just begun. And Calley is now urging women to put their embarrassment to one side and attend their smear test appointments.
The 30-second test that could save your life.
Chloe Delevingne has a smear test live on our programme.
— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) January 25, 2019
Because while she says she can ‘relate to’ women not wanting to bear all to a nurse, if the 27-year-old had been given a smear test sooner – when she first says she asked for one at 21 – it’s likely she would not be in the same position she is in today.
Calley says we need to ‘get past’ our fears and look after our health:
Women don’t want to get their bits out and have another woman looking… we need to get past that. We all have one, they all look different, but the point is: the nurse isn’t interested in what yours looks like, whether you shave or trim or do nothing at all.
I also think women are concerned it will hurt. It doesn’t, and even if it did it doesn’t hurt as much as cancer does, and it doesn’t hurt for long.
The one other reason I think people miss out is because they fear being told there is a problem, they worry that they will go and the nurse will say something is wrong. In my eyes, it’s better to be told sooner rather than later.
Cervical cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, it is highly curable in its early stages. It is not worth the pain, worry and sadness myself and my family felt.
According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, smear tests prevent 75 per cent of cervical cancers. 75 per cent. And yet one in four women skip their appointment – a proportion which rises to one in three between the ages of 25 and 29.
UNILAD spoke to Lisa, a practice nurse who carries out smear tests on a weekly basis. As a woman whose own abnormal cells were detected by a smear test, she is extremely passionate about female health promotion.
Lisa wants women to know they can share their worries with their nurse, saying:
We’re human beings too, and we have to have them done as well. We care and are passionate about our female patients coming for their smears and are so pleased when women do come for them.
I can’t tell women not to be nervous – that’s natural – but anyone that is, please tell your nurse that you are. They will talk you through every stage of it and put you at ease. The speculum is not the most attractive looking device, but it’s not as scary as it looks.
So why do we keep putting ourselves at risk in such a way? The test itself might be a little bit embarrassing, yes, and it might even be slightly uncomfortable for some – but it’s nothing we can’t handle.
And what’s the alternative? Are we really willing to risk our lives, our future, to avoid a tiny bit of discomfort? Or for a smidge of embarrassment? As someone who – I will hold my hands up – did put off my appointment when I first got the invitation, I urge all of you to not do the same.
Please, please attend your smear tests. I promise you it’s nowhere near as scary as you think it’s going to be.
And it might just save your life.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 8pm).