With 1 in 3 women in the UK not taking up the invite for their cervical screening check, I’m striving to help women make informed decisions about their health. I’ve set out to share a variety of experiences of the cervical screening process – from invitation to after-party. Thank you to the women who’ve told me their stories; everything I share in this series is with expressed consent and I’ve changed names where desired.
I had my first cervical screening test the day after my 25th birthday. Like a sick Christmas gift, I received a text just before Christmas (I’m a December-baby) saying I had “abnormal cells”. Throughout my 25 years, I’d had a lot of bad luck with health but presumed my smear test would be fine – after all, I’d had regular periods being on the pill since 15. In hindsight: duh – there’s a 7-day break for your fake period. The test itself was uncomfortable but not painful. For a few days, I was spotting and bled after sex for a few weeks.
Around 6 weeks later, I had my follow-up smear test and a colposcopy. A colposcopy allows a closer look at the cervix to determine whether the abnormal cells identified in the screening are in fact abnormal. This was done at the hospital and followed a similar format as the screening: “pop your clothes off, hop onto the bench, flop open your legs and relax.” Great. Relax, as a biopsy is performed. A small sample of tissue is removed (by burning inside your cervix), this can hurt and there’s an unpleasant burning smell but it doesn’t take too long – and you can go home the same day. For a few days, it felt like I had cystitis; sex was out of the question.
About 4 weeks later, I got my results. The abnormal cells were deemed viral and I was in the low-high category for cervical cancer. Meaning it could be worse, but it could also be better. The biopsy also showed I had HPV. Sorry? I had both vaccination injections at school, was careful with contraception and sexual partners and regularly went for sexual-health check-ups. Are you sure? Well, it seemed I was unlucky (there’s that word again) and was in the cohort who was only vaccinated for HPV strain-18, not 16. Bad luck, Holly. The advice was to monitor my vagina and go back for a smear test a year later.
Following the dodgy cells, my GP also invited me to have a transvaginal ultrasound to check what was happening in there. I went on my own (being very au fait with hospitals, operations and medical procedures) and this was a mistake. The actual ultrasound wasn’t too bad – a freezing cold, dildo-shaped instrument lubed up and pushed inside – and the screen showed my ovaries. The (female) nurses and (male) technician didn’t say anything, even when I asked how everything looked. After getting dressed, the nurses left and the male technician said, “So, as you know, you have polycystic ovaries.” No, I didn’t know that. What does it mean? “It means you won’t be able to have children.”
It does not. But I didn’t know that then. Why wouldn’t I trust the doctor? I called a friend, sobbed all the way home and broke down on the kitchen floor with my parents. I’ll repeat it for the people at the back: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) does not mean you’re infertile.
What followed was a lot of research and some second opinions. I saw a private gynaecologist who specialised in PCOS and he answered lots of questions I had. Whilst PCOS doesn’t mean you’re infertile, it can make it much harder to conceive. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t gone for my cervical screening test. The doctor also told me that my very irregular periods led him to believe it’s unlikely I was actually ovulating. Meaning that when the time comes to conceive, I might want to start hormone-boosting pills and injections.
The following February, just over a year after my first dodgy smear test, I had another check-up. Once again, the results came back with abnormal cells and I had a colposcopy 2 weeks later. Roll on 2 weeks of bleeding. The results showed normal cells, so “abnormal” cells aren’t always something to worry about. From here, my smear tests would resume the standard once-every-three-years pattern.
However, 6 months later, I was invited for another transvaginal scan in a clinic to check my ovaries. Previously, one ovary had a few cysts on it, now both ovaries had over 30 cysts on each one (the threshold for having PCOS is 12 cysts on both ovaries, in total). The (female) nurse also noticed my coil was low on my cervix and she and my GP strongly recommended having it taken out – coils don’t help the symptoms of PCOS.
It’s now February 2021 and I’ve just had my 5th smear test at the age of 29. It didn’t hurt, it took 3 minutes and I haven’t bled. The results come back over the next few weeks.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed for normal cells!
Author’s note: The above story is my own. I haven’t, and won’t, comment on other women’s stories, but I will on my own. Yes, my experience hasn’t been fun, but the actual smear test has been okay. It’s the results and subsequent findings that have made for grim reading. Saying that, if I didn’t have the tests, I wouldn’t know about my fertility issues or the problems with my ovaries. I don’t want this to put women off – it’s so important to know what’s going on inside your body and I’ve written about my journey to help other women know they’re not alone.