Don’t fear the smear!
Ok, so this may not be the most glamorous of articles and may not be so interesting for the men, but really is something I feel passionate about and so I wanted to write about it in one of my first blog posts. Smear tests. Yes ladies, the dreaded smear test! But honestly it really is nothing to fear and I’m hoping this post will help make women feel more relaxed about booking their appointment with the nurse. The numbers of women going for their smear test has fallen in the UK to the lowest numbers for 20 years. This is terrible news because Cancer Research UK revealed that cervical cancer killed 854 women in 2016 and 99% of cases are preventable if caught and treated early when cells start to change.
So smear tests; what are they for? A lot of people mistakenly think the smear test is to tell them whether they have cervical cancer or not. But that’s not what its about. Smear tests are routinely done on women aged 25 to 49 years old every 3 years (if you’ve had abnormal smears in the past you may be recalled earlier than this), every 5 years if you’re aged 50-64, and then you’ll only have one once you’re aged over 65 if one of your last 3 smears was abnormal. A small plastic brush gently takes some cells from around the cervix to be sent to the lab to look for abnormal changes in the cells, which in time could cause cervical cancer if left untreated. Most of the time cervical cancer is obvious visually when doing the smear and if your doctor or nurse had concerns about what your cervix looked like, or you had abnormal symptoms such as bleeding after sex or in between periods, you will be referred to the hospital for further tests.
If the lab find abnormal cells on the smear test you will usually be given an appointment at the colposcopy clinic at the hospital to have further tests or treatment which hopefully would then stop the abnormal cells becoming cancerous.
A lot of women worry about the actual procedure of having the smear test and I would say most women can feel embarrassed about the procedure. But honestly us doctors and nurses see ladies bits all day long and we really don’t care (or often even notice) what your lady garden looks like. Really, its just not an issue for us but we totally understand that you may be feeling nervous and any good nurse or doctor will give you the time you need to relax and feel more comfortable with the procedure. A good tip though is to wear dark pants or bring a panty liner, because some women spot a little bit of blood afterwards and if you wear a dress or long top you can use it as a bit of a modesty blanket when you’re lying there on the couch.
If you’re really worried about having the smear done, maybe because of a previous experience or even a sexual assault, talk to your doctor or nurse beforehand on the phone or face to face. Usually they can offer you a double appointment, say at the end of surgery, so you have plenty of time to take it all slowly and in your time. Ask about bringing your own music in to help relax you, and if you would feel more comfortable with a chaperone do bring someone or ask and the surgery will provide one for you.
Some women may feel extremely nervous about having their smear done for some reason. If you don’t think the above things would help then talk to your doctor about whether it would be possible for you to have a small dose of diazepam to help relax you, or even a referral to the colposcopy clinic at the hospital to have it done if you would feel more comfortable with this.
If it’s a timing problem speak to the receptionists at the surgery about whether there are any weekend or evening appointments available at the surgery or elsewhere via the Improving Access to General Practice scheme (IAGP).
Do check out the amazing website set up by Jo’s Trust which is a charity for cervical cancer in the UK. There is hugely useful clear information for people worried about or recently diagnosed with changes on their smear test or cervical cancer. There is also an excellent video which explains what happens at the actual smear test which is well worth a watch.
Whatever you do ladies, don’t put it off. If you have something that’s worrying you talk to your doctor or nurse and they will try to work through whatever your worries are and find a solution to make you feel more comfortable. And even if you’re still not keen, remember it’s only a 5 minute test, every 3 years, to prevent cancer. You might regret it if you don’t book it.