Do you have a cervix?  If not, I guarantee you know someone with one. Cervical screenings have been in the news lately, in an attempt to encourage women to get theirs checked. Many women are hesitant, for varying reasons, some of which are due to outdated information. 

Here at Force Mujer, we are going to chat to you about modern cervical screenings, what they are, and why should we care.

Cervical screenings (traditionally known as a smear test) check the health of the cervix by taking a sample of cervical cells – the cervix is the opening to the uterus from the vagina (or gatekeepers per se).

This is important because cervical cancer displays little to no symptoms, particularly in the early stages (when treatment is the most effective). Having said that, the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding between periods, or bleeding following menopause. 

If you do experience such symptoms, please go visit your GP! It doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer, but it is worth checking and getting it ruled out. 

Basically, cervical cancer is silent, so it is important we attend our screenings to protect ourselves as much as we can. Ultimately, it is your body and your decision. But it is very strongly advised.

The first ever major cervical screening campaign launched in 2019.

When do you attend your cervical screening? 

If you are woman between the ages of 25 to 64 living in the United Kingdom, the NHS will send you a letter inviting you for your cervical screening.

You will receive your first letter when you are 25, but don’t be surprised if your invitation arrives before your 25th birthday. 

If you are aged between 25 to 49, cervical screenings are offered every 3 years. 

If you are aged between 50 to 64, cervical screenings are offered every 5 years. 

Preparing for your cervical screening test

When you book your test, you will be asked the projected date of your next period. This is to avoid booking your test during your period, which can make getting a good sample challenging. Poor samples may lead to the need to repeat the test in a couple of months.

If your periods are irregular, be sure to let your practice know. They will have plans to work around your irregular cycle. 

For a day or two (or three) before your appointment, refrain from intercourse including lubricant, condoms and spermicide as they can affect the quality of the sample taken during the test.

Screening day

Your test will be performed by a nurse. They will explain the procedure and what cervical screening is for, they will also check if you have any questions – so if you do, now’s the time. Don’t be shy! The nurse is a health professional, she’s heard every question before and will not judge anything you have to say.

Just to note, the test itself is very quick, less than 5 minutes!

The test – getting in position

You will be asked to remove all clothing from the waist down (including your underwear) and be given a large piece of paper to cover the lower part of your body (which I believe is for modesty purposes).

Tip: if you wear a skirt or a dress, you only need to remove your underwear. As a result, you don’t need the paper. From personal experience, the piece of paper doesn’t make you feel any more covered as it comes only part way down your thigh, so in my next appointment I will definitely be wearing a skirt or dress!

You will be asked to lie on your back on an examination bed. You will then be asked to take one of two positions:

  1. Your legs bent with your knees up.
  2. Your feet together and your knees apart.

Note that some practices use examination beds with stirrups. If this is the case, you may be asked to place your feet on the stirrups. Your nurse will instruct you how to proceed.

Tip: if any of the positions are uncomfortable, do let your nurse know. You will not be the first person to ask or need to change positions. The nurse is there for YOU, so will try their best to accommodate and make you comfortable.

The test – taking the sample

Once you are in position, your nurse will let you know when the test is about to start.

  1. The nurse will coat a brand-new speculum in lubricant before slowly putting it into your vagina. Some nurses will warm the speculum with warm water so that you don’t feel a cold sensation. Nowadays, speculums are a plastic tube shaped tool that have a mechanism to widen the vagina – making the cervix visible to your nurse.
  2. Once the speculum is in place, your nurse will gently use this mechanism to open the speculum so that they can see your cervix. If you have a tilted cervix, your nurse should let you know and this is when you will find out!
  3. They will then insert a small, soft brush to take a sample of cells from your cervix.*
  4. Your nurse will remove the speculum, the brush and place it in a small fluid filled vial (to preserve the cells) to be sent off to the lab for testing.
  5. You’re done!
Your cervix is the narrow passage forming the lower end of the uterus.

*You will feel movement down there, but it shouldn’t be painful. I personally felt a very light pinch but the procedure was so quick I barely noticed anything. Common myth: many people think a scraper is used and that it will be painful. While once true, this is outdated, a small brush is now used for ease and comfort.

Some women bleed after the sample is taken, it’s very light (more like spotting) so I recommend you bring a small sanitary pad. If you don’t have one, your nurse will give you one. If you do lightly bleed, this can last for a couple hours or a couple days, this is normal.

Once you have gotten dressed again your nurse will explain how and when you will receive your results.

Let’s do this, what happens during your cervical screening?

The results

You will be sent a letter that will explain your results.

Most of us will have a normal result, meaning, the next cervical screening will be in the next 3 to 5 years.

If you have an abnormal result, stay calm and follow the instructions of your letter and your practice.

As a side note, there are discussions that women who received the HPV vaccine, may not need to be reviewed as frequently throughout their lifetime. You can read the NHS report ‘Women who have received HPV vaccine may require fewer cervical screening tests’. But note that the current NHS guidelines for frequency of cervical screenings have not changed and remains at the 3-5 years.

For more information, you can visit the NHS cervical screening page.

The excuses

Millions of women miss their tests every year. We’ll try and dispell some of the most common reasons.

Jade Goody
Big Brother Series 3 star Jade Goody died of cervical cancer in 2009, at just 27 years old. A substantial surge in the number of women attending cervical screenings followed. However, a decade later, around 1 in 3 women do not attend a screening at the recommended time.

It hurts!
We won’t like, it’s not painless, but it’s not much more painful than a pinch. It’s a bit like a trip to the dentist- the pain you imagine will be much worse than the reality.

It’s embarrassing
Women, particularly, are taught that our privates are private. But your nurse will have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of women and will do their best to put you at ease.

I don’t have any symptoms
Cervical cancer is often symptomless. Should the worst happen, treatment is much more effective the earlier it is utilised.

I don’t have time
Waits at the Doctor’s office are unpredictable and no one wants to be there. Take a book, listen to a podcast and make the most of what is unlikely to be more than a 30-minute wait. The test itself is quick and if you wear something loose and you’ll be done even quicker.

I didn’t know I was supposed to go
If you’ve never heard about cervical screenings or haven’t received a letter inviting you to one, call your local GP who will be more than happy to schedule one for you.

Have you had your cervical screening? Please share your experiences!

NHS cervical screening poster

Disclaimer:
We are not medical experts, please contact your GP or local sexual health clinic if you have any concerns or queries, and they will be more than happy to help you.
We appreciate survivors of abuse may find this experience traumatic, but we urge you, if you are able to, speak to your GP.

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