My regular readers will know I write a post in honour of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week every year, and this year is no different. Cervical cancer awareness charity Jo’s Trust are at the forefront of the #SmearForSmear campaign every year, encouraging women to attend their cervical screening (aka. Smear test). It’s a simple, routine test that takes less than 15 minutes, and ultimately, could save your life. Of course, in addition to the usual barriers that surround screening (which we’ll get to later on), this year, we have the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, which undoubtedly will be putting many off making their appointment, as well as the whole question of whether or not GP surgeries are still offering them during the current lockdown. Despite everything going on at the moment, Jo’s Trust still wants to highlight the importance of cervical screening and provide those eligible with the relevant information and advice surrounding smear tests and the current pandemic. So, in light of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, taking place between the 17th and 23rd January, I’ve done a bit of research into the most common myths about cervical screening, and the truths behind them.
Before We Begin…A Few Notes
- As you may or may not have guessed already, in this post, I’ll be talking about vaginas. Vaginas, cervixes, speculums, the lot. It’s a common theme under this topic.
- Despite it being obvious, I should state for the record that I am NOT a medical professional and opinions given on the topic are based on my own personal experience. I have thoroughly researched the topic and only used reputable sources for information in this post, largely from the Jo’s Trust website, which is the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity. If you have any questions surrounding cervical screening, refer to the NHS website, Jo’s Trust or contact your GP for advice.
Right. Let’s crack on.
What is a Cervical Screening Test?
Cervical screening is a routine test that checks for the HPV virus and any cellular changes in the cervix, which may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. In the UK, it’s offered to all women and people with cervix between 25 and 64, free of charge on the NHS. How often should you have cervical screening? Generally, between every 3-5 years, depending on previous test results/medical history.
5 Common Cervical Screening Myths Explained
Let’s start with one of the most popular. According to the NHS, one in three women don’t attend their cervical screening because of embarrassment. This ranges from embarrassment about body shape to the appearance of your bits, from worrying that you’ve not shaved/waxed to how it smells down there. Look, I know what you mean. I’m sure we’ve all been there having “that” sort of examination, where we’re thinking “god I bet she thinks it’s a right mess down there.” I think it’s one of those things we’re just programmed to do. But, let me tell you – the nurse who does your screening will not care. I don’t want to be crass (but I’m a firm believer that the more we talk about these things, the more we normalise them) but your fanny will be one of many fannies they’ll see that day. They’re not going to care whether or not you’ve waxed or what your bits look like. Of course, if it makes you feel better to have a bit of a tidy up down there, by all means do. But honestly, they won’t mind either way.
Of course, many will see the overall process as something that’s quite embarrassing, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s only normal to feel embarrassed by the whole thing. But remember, the nurse will have done this many times before. While the overall idea of sitting on a bed with your pants off and your legs in stirrups certainly isn’t the most dignified of positions, it’s five minutes, and these days, there’s lots of ways that you can keep your dignity.
- There will usually be a sheet of paper for you to cover your bottom half with so you’re not completely on show.
- The nurse will generally have an area that’s curtained off for you to undress, so you can get yourself ready and in position without anyone watching.
- If you wear a skirt this can often make things a lot easier as you can just slip off your underwear and you’ll feel a bit more covered.
Read more on tips for cervical screening in my earlier post: Why You Should Go Ahead and Book Your Cervical Screening. If you’ve never had one before, I wrote a post on my own experience at the end of 2019 to give you an idea of what happens at a cervical screening.
This is another common myth, and it’s a tricky one to dispel. Generally, a cervical screening shouldn’t be painful. However, Jo’s Trust wants to make it clear that some women may find it painful, and that’s perfectly normal. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but personally, for me the worst bit is the speculum opening up – again, I wouldn’t say it’s painful but it definitely was uncomfortable – the rest you barely feel. There can be a number of reasons why you might find it painful, but remember, there are things you can do to help, such as asking the nurse to use a smaller speculum (they have different sizes) and by telling them up front if this is your first cervical screening or if you’ve had a bad experience in the past. The key thing to remember? You’re in control. If it hurts at any point, say something.
Jo’s Trust also has additional resources available on cervical screening for people with learning disabilities and those who have experienced sexual violence, so if you need additional support and advice, be sure to check these out.
“An Abnormal Result Means You Have Cancer”
Given the fact cervical screening is a test that can reduce your risk of cervical cancer, it’s incredibly easy to come to the conclusion that if you have an abnormal result, you have cancer. Remember, cervical screening is a test for cell changes and NOT cancer itself. If you have an abnormal result, it does not mean that you have cancer – it just means you’ve had cell changes. In some cases, these will require further treatment, and in others, they’ll go back to normal on their own. According to Jo’s Trust, it’s rare for cervical cancer to be diagnosed through screening, and less than 1% of people with abnormal results will have it.
“You Don’t Need it if You’ve Had the HPV Vaccine”
The HPV vaccine was a fairly new thing when I was at school, and I actually opted not to have it because I was a dumbass teenager and didn’t trust it – around that time it was in the news that a year 8 girl had it and subsequently died (turned out it was pneumonia rather than the jab itself as the cause). Now, I wouldn’t think twice. Inject that shit right into me please. These days, the HPV vaccine is offered to girls and boys in schools between age 11 and 13. Many may be under the assumption that because they’ve had the HPV vaccine, they don’t need to have a cervical screening test, however, this isn’t the case. While the HPV jab protects against 70% of cervical cancer cases, having regular cervical screening ensures that you can be checked for cell changes caused by other types of the virus the vaccine doesn’t protect you against.
“Only Straight, Sexually Active Women Need Them”
The belief that you only need this test if you’re a straight, sexually active woman is yet another one of the cervical screening myths to be debunked. All women and people with a cervix, regardless of whether or not they are sexually active, will be invited for screening between the ages of 25 and 64 (most will get their first invitation about 6 months prior to their 25th birthday). It’s also important to remember that ALL women and people with a cervix are entitled to attend cervical screening – regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Jo’s Trust has some great resources on cervical screening for trans men and non-binary people, so give it a read if this applies to you for some helpful tips and advice.
Is Cervical Screening Still Happening?
So, are doctors still doing cervical screening? This is a tricky one. Generally, the overall cervical screening procedure should remain the same – just with a lot more PPE. Jo’s Trust has put together a dedicated FAQ page on cervical screening and coronavirus, answering any basic questions you have, but the best piece of advice is to contact your GP surgery if you have received your invitation. Some may be allowing you to book appointments for cervical screening, and you’ll just need to stick to the usual rules (wearing a face covering, rescheduling if you have covid symptoms/need to self isolate etc), but others may require you to wait a few weeks or ask you to get back in touch at a later time.
If you’re able to book your appointment and attend, rest assured that your surgery will have plenty of measures in place to keep you safe. I mentioned in a recent post about a trip I had to the doctors and how it was honestly the safest I’ve ever felt (and that’s a lot coming from me!), so please don’t worry about that side of things. They will only let you book an appointment if they feel it’s safe to do so. Similarly, if you’re having any symptoms that are concerning you, it’s best to get them checked out sooner rather than later, so be sure to contact your GP.
Remember, even in the current situation we’re in with the pandemic, your cervical screening is still important. If you’ve received your invitation, get booked in, or at the very least, get in contact with your GP to see what’s happening.
Have you been faced with any myths surrounding cervical screening? Was there anything that you found particularly helpful during your own experience? Let me know in the comments!
Find out more about cervical screening, coronavirus and support for those with additional needs on the Jo’s Trust website.