Do you attend your cervical screening? Research by Public Health England (PHE) has found that 90% of women would be likely to take a test that prevents cancer, but despite this 1 in 4 women in the UK fail to attend their appointment. The fact that screening is now at its lowest in 20 years is rather scary, especially when you consider that 83% of cervical cancer cases can be prevented. Reasons for not attending include things such as embarrassment, worrying it’ll be painful, and simply not having the time. In the spirit of things, today’s post is all about encouraging you to go for your cervical screening.
Now, most of us will be aware of what a cervical screening is, but if you’re still not sure: it’s a test simply to check the health of your cervix. It’s not a test for cervical cancer, but to pick up on changes that could potentially lead to it if left untreated, the most common being the HPV virus, which is the cause of nearly all types of cervical cancers. While you can choose whether or not you have a cervical screening, going for your appointment is the best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer. In terms of what actually happens at your appointment, take a look at this handy guide from Jo’s Trust, where you can find out what happens at every step. I also wrote about my own cervical screening experience to give you a personal account of what happens.
In the UK, screening is offered to all women between the ages of 25 and 64, and you’ll be invited every 3 to 5 years, depending on your age. When it comes to your first invitation, you’ll usually get it around 6 months before you turn 25. As someone with major health anxiety, I genuinely was relieved when my invitation for my first screening appointment arrived. There had been a lot of stuff in the media years before about how young women were being diagnosed with late stage cervical cancer through the fact it hadn’t been caught early enough, so when my letter arrived, I was straight on the phone booking my appointment.
So let’s talk a little more about the reasons for putting it off. We’ll start with embarrassment. There’s so many things we’re embarrassed to go to the doctors for – anything in the downstairs area of course being top of that list – but for important things like this, we should all make like those folk on Embarrassing Bodies and just go for it. Obviously, I don’t mean go on telly and get your bits out, I mean just go ahead and make that appointment! It’s likely that your vagina will be one of many that the nurse who does your test will see that day, that week, and that month. They won’t be judging what your ham sandwich looks like, whether you’ve waxed or what it smells like – they will be all about dat cervix, I promise.
Now let’s talk about not having the time. A cervical screening test takes 5 minutes tops, and in total you’ll be in your GP surgery for around 15 minutes – so realistically, it doesn’t take that much time out of your schedule. Of course, most people work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, which generally are the opening hours of most surgeries, which is understandable why you may not rush to get it booked in. No one wants to be spending a day’s holiday in a doctor’s waiting room, do they? But recently, more surgeries are extending their opening hours, offering weekends, early morning and evening appointments, meaning that theoretically it’s a lot easier to go for your screening. This may not be the case for everyone, but it’s worth looking into it to see if your surgery offers a time that would be more convenient for you.
Moving on to the worry about it being painful. This is a tricky one because everyone’s different in how they handle pain. Now, saying that you won’t feel a thing is a bit of a lie, but personally, I didn’t find it painful. It’s more uncomfortable than anything else, but that discomfort is over in minutes, and I was lucky to have a lovely nurse who chatted to me throughout, which was a good distraction. The key thing is to tell your nurse if you’re anxious! Going for mine it was the first thing I said before I sat down and she immediately put me at ease. She explained the test and what she would do before I even led on the bed, and she said that if at any point I felt any pain to tell her. She chatted away to me throughout the whole thing, and she explained what she was doing the entire time. We genuinely discussed our plans for Christmas at one point!
If you’re still worried, there’s plenty more things you can do to make things more comfortable. Here are my top tips:
- Wear a skirt. You’ll be given a sheet to cover your bottom half anyway, but this can be really helpful if you don’t want to feel too exposed.
- Bring someone with you. Bring your Mum, your sister, your friend – sometimes just having a familiar face there can make all the difference. Even if they’re just keeping you company in the waiting room!
- Distract yourself! There’s plenty of distraction techniques around that you can use to keep your anxiety at bay, with everything from breathing exercises to simply singing a Disney song in your head! Seriously – I genuinely do this when I have a blood test.
- If you’re anxious – say something! Tell your nurse if it’s your first screening or if you’ve had any issues in the past and they’ll be able to make you feel more at ease.
- Remember that you can request a female doctor or nurse to carry out the test if this makes you feel more comfortable, and you can also request a chaperone to be in the room too.
So, I hope this post has given you a little insight and put your mind at ease when it comes to cervical screening. Obviously I’m not a medical professional, and I didn’t want to get too technical when it comes down to the actual procedure, but I did want to give a few tips and thoughts on the whole thing, in the hope that it settles some of your fears, or at least motivates you to get it booked in. If you’d like some more information on cervical screening, take a look at the Jo’s Trust website, where you’ll find plenty of advice on how you can make your test more comfortable. In addition, there are sections providing help and support on going for your screening if you have experienced sexual violence, or if you have a learning disability.