A nice early warning for everyone – in this post, I’ll be talking about vaginas. Anyway, now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with today’s post. So today, as it’s Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, I thought I’d put together a post on what happens when you have a smear test. Obviously most will know the gist of it, but if you’ve not actually had one before, you may not know exactly what goes on. In particular, having your first smear test can be a bit of a daunting experience, so if that’s you, I’ve put together an account of how the cervical screening test is actually carried out. You may remember, back in April last year, I wrote a post on why you should book your cervical screening appointment, and if you haven’t done so yet, I’d recommend you give it a read as it ties in nicely with this one. While my previous post looks at the importance of getting your smear test, today I’m going to talk you through what to expect when you attend, so that if you’re feeling a little anxious about the whole thing, it may put your mind at rest.
What is a Smear Test?
So, let’s start with a reminder as to what a cervical screening test is. It’s more commonly known as a ‘smear test,’ and it’s to check the health of your cervix. A common misconception is that it’s a test for cervical cancer, but that’s not actually the case. It’s a test that examines the cells from your cervix. In some cases, abnormal cells can be detected, and if left untreated, they could lead to cancer. However, if they’re found early enough they can be treated, making sure that they don’t turn into cervical cancer. One of the most common things a cervical screening test looks for is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is one of the main causes of cervical cancer.
When Will You Be Invited for Cervical Screening?
Cervical screening is offered to all people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64. In the case of your first smear test, you’ll generally be invited within the 6 months before your 25th birthday. You’ll get a letter in the post, and once this arrives you can book your appointment at your GP surgery.
What Happens at a Cervical Screening?
Going for a smear test can be a nerve wracking experience for many, but it’s a quick procedure that could ultimately save your life. I went for what was my second cervical screening test back in December, and I had a really lovely nurse who talked me through the whole thing and made it as painless as possible. While your experience may differ depending on your GP surgery, I’ve listed below what happened when I had mine last month, just to give you an idea.
I was asked to confirm my name, date of birth and my address. The nurse saw on my records that I had a cervical screening back in 2016, but she still asked whether or not she wanted me to go through the test before she carried it out.
When I had my first smear test, the nurse had a demonstration kit on the desk, and she showed me the equipment and went through each stage of the test. There was also the opportunity to ask any questions.
Before we started, I was asked a few questions. The nurse asked a few things including the date of my last period, and whether I was experiencing any problems in the downstairs area (e.g. pain/bleeding after sex, stomach/back pain, unusual discharge etc). These are standard questions you’ll be asked at your appointment, so don’t worry!
She then explained a bit more about the results and the possible outcomes, again giving me the opportunity to ask questions.
As I was wearing a skirt (top tip), I was asked to remove my tights and underwear and to lie on the bed. I was given a sheet of tissue paper to wear over my bottom half.
I was asked to lie on my back, with my ankles together and knees apart. In theory, it’s all very awkward as you’re just lying there with your vajay on display, but honestly, it’s fine. Just remember the nurse doing the test will probably be seeing a whole array of vaginas that day! I like to think it’s no different to answering one email and then moving on to another.
The nurse made sure I was happy for her to start the test, and she began by inserting a speculum, which if you’re not familiar with, looks like this:
It’s not as scary as it looks, honest! You may also be surprised to know there’s actually different sizes of speculums that can be used, so if you find it too uncomfortable you can ask for a smaller one to be used.
Anyway, the speculum is probably the worst bit. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels a bit uncomfortable. However, the nurse was lovely and kept asking me if I was okay and told me to let her know if it got too uncomfortable.
She then used the soft brush (as pictured above) to take the sample. While I could feel it, it wasn’t painful, just a bit strange. However, it was done really quickly so even if you find it uncomfortable, it doesn’t last long at all. As she removed the brush she mentioned there was a bit of blood on it, but that this was perfectly normal. In her words “cervixes aren’t used to being touched!” She told me I probably wouldn’t even notice it, and to be fair, I didn’t. I was expecting panty liners to get involved, but nope. All good.
That’s it! The sample was put into a container which I was told contains a liquid to preserve the cells. I then was allowed to get dressed and the nurse explained how long it would take to get my results.
After the Test
Once I was dressed and sat back down, the nurse explained that it takes 2 weeks for the results to arrive in the post. She gave me one last opportunity to ask any questions, and that was it. The whole thing took less than 15 minutes and I went straight to work afterwards. And, happy ending: my results arrived just after Christmas, and I’m all good.
Cervical Screening Tips
Before I finish, I’ve put together a list of a few things you may find useful when it comes to your cervical screening appointment. All this info comes courtesy of Jo’s Trust, which has some great information and tips on cervical screening if you need more advice.
- Wear a dress or skirt if you can. You can leave it on and just remove your underwear so it’ll help you feel more covered.
- Ask questions. Even if you think it’s a really silly and obvious question!
- Tell the doctor or nurse if you’re anxious or if it’s your first smear test. They’ll understand and hopefully be able to put your mind at rest before the test is carried out.
- Bring a friend or relative with you if it makes you feel more at ease.
- Remember you can ask the doctor/nurse to stop at any time.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a chaperone or a doctor/nurse of a particular gender. You can request this when you book an appointment just to be on the safe side.
I hope this has given you some insight into how a smear test is done and what you can expect. Remember, while a cervical screening may seem embarrassing or inconvenient, it’s a 15 minute test that could ultimately save your life.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this post is based on my own experience of cervical screening. You may find the procedure differs slightly depending on your GP surgery and the professional that carries out the test. If you need any further information, Jo’s Trust is a great organisation that has plenty of information on the cervical screening test and how you can make it a more comfortable experience. In addition, they also provide support and information for people who have experienced sexual violence, people with learning disabilities, and for people who are trans or identify as non-binary.