I get it. You don’t want to lie on a clinic bed, naked from the waist down whilst a medical profession sticks something that could rightly be called an ‘implement’ up your vagina.
I mean, nobody wants that.
But nobody wants to do their taxes, clean up kid vomit at 4am or floss their teeth either. Life comes with some inconvenient essentials.
I want to tell you how cervical screening (probably) saved my life and why two minutes of discomfort every 3 to 5 years is not all that bad.
Me, Aged Fifteen
I was flicking through a copy of Glamour fifteen years ago when I came across an advert in the back. Yup, I even read through the adverts in those days.
The advert was a call for women aged 15 to 25 to take part in a huge cervical cancer vaccine trial in London.
For some reason I thought it sounded like a good idea. What can I say? I was a precocious and spontaneous teenager.
I called up the number and signed on. It was a trial involving over 18,000 women and run by GlaxoSmithKline for the now approved Cervarix vaccine.
I was to have three doses of the vaccine or placebo, and attend a total of ten clinic visits (and cervical screenings) over the course of four years. Which I did, enjoying an excuse to potter about nearby Oxford Street afterwards.
After my last appointment, I went on a two-month jaunt to the USA with my best friend and thought nothing more about it.
Oh, the Old Phone Call
I was sunning myself in Colorado when I had a voicemail message from the clinic. They’d found a high-risk type of HPV (Human Papillomavirus — strains of which are largely responsible for cervical cancer) and CIN3 cells.
They were calling because, in short, they needed me to come the hell in.
When I returned to the UK, I duly headed up to London where I underwent an unpleasant but manageable LLETZ procedure. Essentially, they use an electric loop to cut away the abnormal cells. It was under local anaesthetic and both the nurse and the consultant chatted away to me throughout, keeping me calm and not thinking about what was going on Below.
Great. Sweet. Story over, right?
Not so much.
When Will it End?
I had cervical screenings every six months until my cells were happy as Larry again and the HPV had cleared my system. Often, the body will get rid of HPV all by itself (cheers immune system), but it requires monitoring to ensure it does its job.
But after two years, my cells were showing up as CIN2, a situation that made my consultant frown deeply and sigh. Back to the hospital it was.
The trial doctors had tested me for HPV the first time around and were aware that CIN3 plus high risk HPV was a recipe for disaster. But HPV testing hadn’t yet been rolled out across NHS cervical screening (it is now in the process of implementation).
So when CIN2 rocked up, I wasn’t tested for HPV first to ascertain whether there was a significant risk.
I went into surgery under general anaesthetic this time and woke up a couple of hours later a tad confused as to my location.
When I got the results from the cells removed, it turned out I didn’t have CIN2 at all. Or HPV again. My cells were just, I don’t know, grumpy or something. They looked menacing but they weren’t actually up to anything nefarious. Which was nice.
To all intents and purposes, the surgery had been unnecessary. But given my history and the testing abilities of the NHS at the time, I could hardly hold proactiveness against the consultant.
What’s This Got to Do with Not Being Afraid of Cervical Screening?
I’ve been there ladies.
I’ve had so many ‘implements’ of a non-sexual nature Up There I couldn’t even begin to count. I’m not embarrassed by it nor worried what the doctor will think of my hair maintenance schedule.
Because here’s the thing.
The medical community have given us an incredible gift. The gift of forewarning. Of prevention.
The new HPV vaccines mean that cervical cancer rates could plummet in the next generations as more and more children receive them.
But I’m not even talking about the vaccines. The screening itself is a gift.
In England, cervical screening doesn’t start until women hit 25. There are reasons for this, namely due to cell changes in younger women rectifying themselves. The NHS doesn’t want to start ripping out cells that are just going through an angsty phase, as it were.
But I was 20 when I had CIN3 and were it not for the trial, who knows where that could’ve ended. And I’m an unusual case. Cervical cancer is rare in under 25s and perhaps my body would’ve dealt with it…y’know…in house.
But when you get called for your cervical screening, go. Because you are being handed a golden ticket to proactively managing your health. In the UK, this golden ticket is free.
99.8% of cervical cancer is preventable. Preventable.
How is it prevented? The biggest way is by attending regular screenings. And by regular, it’s every 3 to 5 years in the UK folks, it’s not like you have to go every month.
Still Hate the Thought Of It?
Totally get it, it’s not like I enjoy going to cervical screenings. You’re never going to like it. But the means justifies the end.
Here are some tips to deal with it:
- When you get your reminder letter, call up your GP and make an appointment. Straight away. Do it. Don’t put the letter in a drawer and forget it. Take a deep breath and book in.
- Make your schedule work for you. Screenings take two minutes, I’m not kidding. It’ll take you longer to put your shoes back on afterwards than the actual screening. Unless your appointment is first thing, go to work. It’ll stop you from worrying. If you’re really stressed out about it, take the time after the appointment off work. You won’t need it off, but I’m a big fan of choosing life over work and this is a good excuse.
- Don’t be embarrassed. The doctor or nurse who’s doing your screening does not feel awkward about this. They’ve done it so many times it’s like scrolling through BBC News — they’re on the lookout for something important but everything trivial goes right over their heads. Don’t get big-headed, they don’t care if you last waxed three years ago. Also, most practices use female medical professionals to do the screening, so they’ve been in your position too.
- You are in control. By attending your screening, you are taking control of your health. You might feel vulnerable on that bed but you’re not. You have enlisted the expertise of the doctor/nurse to help you stay on top of your health. Just like they will enlist your expertise if they need a lawyer/vet/copywriter/tennis coach/whatever your job is. You are outsourcing cancer prevention, smart.
- Go every single time. Chances are, you won’t have to go to cervical screenings more than once every 3–5 years. But always go when it’s time. The first one might make you nervous, maybe the second too. But every time after that you’ll be lying back and flicking through Instagram, wondering what to make for dinner. Familiarity is the enemy of anxiety. Use it.
Now Check When You Last Went and Don’t Stress
I don’t know what the reminder system is like where you are, but if you chop and change your GP practice in the UK, don’t rely on your new one to have kept up. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself.
So work out when you last had a screening and when your next one should be due. If you’re overdue, call up your doctor. I made an appointment today, so if you need to, pick up the phone now and do it.
If nothing else, you’ll be showing your appreciation for the medical advances that have made it possible to prevent cancer.
Want more information on cervical screening?
Read the NHS Guidance here.
Kitiara Pascoe is a freelance ghostwriter, content marketer and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon, UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting and content marketing services at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk