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 still look back at the first time with an equal mix of fear and anger. Anger that it happened, and fear that I could be forced to go through it all again.
The first time I went for my cervical smear test, the nurse was positively vile. When I pointed out to her that the form said I was a “Miss”, not a Mrs, she told me that it ‘didn’t really matter’ and that ‘most marriages end in divorce anyway’. She was so bitter towards me that I started to wonder whether she had some sort of twisted sense of humour that I simply didn’t understand.
During the actual exam, I found the speculum a little bit uncomfortable at first but I thought I would be okay. She adjusted the speculum at least three times without telling me, and it was painful. As she tutted and sighed and adjusted it the fourth and final time, I was close to tears. I live with a chronic pain condition, but this pain was indescribable – it was raw and intimate and it felt like my insides were tearing. I raised my hand to ask her to stop (which is somehow the automatic response to these settings!) but she ignored me. She sorted the sample and left me to sort myself out, then with barely more than a few words about when to expect a result, she let me leave.
That had been my first cervical screening.
I felt sore and violated and I had some spotting for a few days. I knew that this was a medical test and tests aren’t always comfortable, but nothing about this test felt okay. I’d had urine flow tests before which were degrading but bearable and I’d worked for the NHS in 2009-2010, so I knew that the screening for prostate cancer is now a simple blood test. Why were women still being treated this way for something that most women will receive a normal result for? It felt barbaric, comparatively!
The second time I was screened, the only saving grace was the friendly nurse. She was kind, but she wasn’t any more gentle and she proceeded to talk to my apparently-shy cervix during the exam. After using only cold water from the tap as any form of ‘lubricant’, she managed to dig one of the blades of the speculum into the wall of my vagina. It didn’t bleed, but it did cause a horrific, pinching pain that left me feeling like I had a UTI for the next two days.
I remember having a bath as soon as I could. I sat in a bathtub filled with warm water and bubbles while my husband plied me with wine and my mother tried to console me via text. Physically, I’d only been for a cervical screening but emotionally, it felt much worse. I’ve been sexually assaulted before, and I felt like that numbness and confusion had consumed me again. I could bathe, but no amount of bathing ever makes you feel really clean. I didn’t want sex and I didn’t want hugs. I didn’t want anything at all, I just wanted to cry and be justified in my self-pity, at least for a day or two. I’d talked myself into believing that the second time would be better, and it wasn’t. There was no way I could live my life going through this every three years. Nobody told me about the consequences of being born female!
Nobody tells you about the psychological impact of these exams, they just tell you that the test “doesn’t hurt”. When you don’t have a friendly nurse and you find that your cervical screening does hurt. You don’t feel as though you can talk to anyone about it and so you feel as though you’re just being dramatic. You wind up feeling silenced by the counterargument that is used against you and your current physical and emotional state – at least it’s better than developing cancer. It’s worse when, like me, you’ve also lost two loved ones to cancer, because then the guilt trip of having refused a “simple” diagnostic test that could save your life can be used against you, too. Anything is fair game.
I’ve since learned that a “shy cervix” means that I have a retroverted uterus, which makes these exams especially painful for me. At no time have I ever been given any advice or proper lubricant or pain relief, I’m just expected to grin and bear through it. All that matters at these appointments, it seems, is the ability to take the sample.
I’ve now made my own calculated risk assessment and I have decided to ‘default’ on cervical screening for the time being. I know that I run the risk of undetected cervical cancer if I don’t go in the next three years and yet, I’m not defaulting for good. I still follow, very excitedly, the discussions about a urine test that can detect HPV, which I will gladly take up if it becomes available on the NHS. Compared to the pain that I experienced from my cervical screening tests? For me, the brief shame of peeing in a pot would be nothing!