With a history of abnormalities, colposcopies and invasive treatments in my family (my Mum, Aunt and Nan have all been in and out of hospital with gynecological issues over the last thirty years,) I know that a regular smear test is vital for any issues to be caught and dealt with swiftly. But in 2015 there are still thousands of young girls and women that are simply cacking their pants about an impending smear test, putting it off and working themselves up into such a state that they're petrified by the time that they step through the surgery door. After discussing this on Twitter, I decided to speak openly about my experiences and explain exactly what happens in the hope of helping a few others feel a little more comfortable with the prospect. This may not be relevant to everybody (in fact I'm sure the majority of readers have already experiences a smear,) but if it helps one more woman pluck up the courage to book an appointment - my job here is done.
What tools do they use during the procedure?
A smear test involves two things: a plastic pair of forceps and a little plastic brush. Each time a smear test is conducted the nurse will use a brand new set, fresh out of the sterile packaging. The forceps are used to open the cervix so the little brush can retrieve a sample for testing; because no cervix is ever the same, there are a variety of sizes of forcep to make the procedure as quick and easy as possible. Your nurse will start with the 'average' size (which tends to be best for the majority of people,) moving up or down if required. Although there are horror stories about metal clamps and sitting with your legs akimbo, this is a really old fashioned way of administering a smear - in 2015, it's a lot less surgical and as simple as getting your jabs.
What actually happens during a smear test?
The whole process takes about three minutes from beginning to end. You remove your knickers and jump up on the examination bed, either lifting your knees or sitting in a frog position to give the nurse the best view and access point. (This may sound cringey, but if you wear a skirt you can't even see what she's up to - lie back and think of Ryan Gosling!) The nurse will use a small about of lubricant on the forceps and insert them into your vagina, opening them slowly to allow her to find your cervix and take a sample. Once she's found the right point, the little brush is used to swish around inside and take a sample of cells for testing. As soon as the brush is covered (usually about five quick swirls) the forceps are removed and you can pop back on your underwear... That's literally it!
Does a smear test hurt?
No, not at all. You may experience a little discomfort from the pressure of the forceps widening inside, or even a little tickle from the brush, but there is no pain whatsoever. I can assure you (if you've never experienced one before,) that after your smear you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. The key thing is to relax as much as possible and the procedure will take seconds.
How often should I go for a smear test?
Your first smear test should happen when you reach 25; the reason it's no lower is because historically the smears were picking up on abnormalities that were just a result of the body changing and continuing to develop. After your first one you should pop back in every three years for another check-up - your doctor should send you a reminder letter, but if not make sure you know when you're due another test and book an appointment regardless.
Are there any side-effects?
You may experience slight period cramps or spotting for 24hrs afterwards, which is perfectly normal. This is simply because you've been prodded at a bit inside and your lady parts are delicate and sensitive. Other than that you wouldn't even know you'd had anything done.
How long will it take to get the result?
Within two weeks you should receive a letter through the post confirming the results. If your test comes back as normal then you don't have to do anything at all. If your test shows abnormalities, then you'll be asked to pop back for a colposcopy at the hospital; this is simply a closer look inside your cervix with a microscope and isn't anything to worry about at that stage.
What happens if the results come back with 'abnormalities'?
There are two types of abnormalities - cells that are pre-cancerous and have the potential to develop into something more serious, as well as cells that will simply return to normal without any treatment whatsoever. An abnormal result doesn't mean cancer. An abnormal result doesn't even necessarily mean you've got pre-cancerous cells. An abnormal results simply means there's something worth having anther look at.
What tips would you give me for my first time?
1. Wear a skirt or a dress so you feel less 'exposed' and nervous. If you have to wack off your trousers and literally lie on a table half-naked, then you're going to feel uncomfortable; if you wear a dress or a skirt you won't be able to see anything and you'll feel a lot more covered.
2. Relax, don't panic and if you want to ask questions then ask: the nurses are used to seeing young women for their first appointment so they're happy to chat or take the time to explain and make you feel comfortable. The more tense you are the longer it will take her to get her plastic forceps in, which is actually what takes the time.
3. If you're nervous about getting your lady bits out in front of a stranger, take the time to have a little trim and pamper before your appointment. The nurses see thousands of naked bits a year so they don't even pay attention, but it will make you feel more comfortable and confident.
Smear tests really aren't scary and are literally over in a few minutes. I was in and out of my appointment in twelve minutes, and at least eight of those were me chatting away to the nurse and asking questions. Personally I find going for a smear test the most easy appointment at the doctor, because most surgeries know it's not particularly fun and make every effort to make it as painless as possible. If you're really worried you can ask for a friend or family member to come with you, but after you're back in your knickers you'll probably feel like a donut - it really isn't anything to worry about at all. I hope this helps even a couple of people to really understand what a smear test is all about and answers a few bubbling questions. If you have any further questions, please don't hessitate to leave a comment (anonymous if you need to!) and I'll do my best to answer.
For more information have a look at the NHS website: www.mysmeartest.co.uk
There are some useful FAQs here: www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk/cervical/faqs.html
Features PR samples unless otherwise stated. To read my full disclaimer, click here.