Cervical Screening Awareness Week – 14 – 20 June 2021
This week is cervical screening awareness week. Despite invites for women and people with a cervix to attend cervical screening appointments via their GP surgery, there are still some who are not taking up this offer. According to leading cervical cancer charity, Jo’s Trust, the barriers to are attending can be as follows: Embarrassment, Pain, Relevance, Fear of results, Judgement, Convenience, Physical disability, Trauma, FGM, Familiarity with the sample taker and Lack of understanding.
It is important to keep talking about cervical screening as a way to raise awareness of it and also reduce the stigma surrounding discussion of it. People tend not to share test results if there are issues and therefore, don’t always find the support and reassurance from others that they might do. Like many topics to do with sexual health, there remains an element of taboo and unless these subjects are more widely and more openly discussed, many of us remain in the dark about them.
Why do I need to attend cervical screening appointments
Cervical screening helps prevent cervical cancer by checking for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). It also checks for cell changes which could lead to HPV. It is vital that people do attend these appointments as cervical screening prevents over 7 in 10 diagnoses by identifying those who are at higher risk of developing cervical cell changes or cervical cancer. While there may be barriers, the advantages far outweigh the risk if you choose not to attend.
I have been lucky enough to escape more than a period of more regular monitoring due to cell changes, but I have many friends who have required treatment which has prevented things from developing further. I can’t say that I am keen to go and was a little disappointed to learn that the tests no longer stop when you are 50. However, I do realise that this is for my own good and despite my discomfort at times, I will call and attend.
I have had periods where I put things off. My reasons are never good ones and never worth the risk that I am taking in delaying. They include a fear of being weighed as part of the appointment, difficulty in getting time off work when the clinics run and bad experiences on previous occasions. Actually the negative experiences have lessened as I have grown older and got to know my own body as I am able to direct the clinician a little now that I know the way I am made.
My first appointment
My first cervical ‘smear test’ was back in the 1990 and it was part of a routine ‘Well Woman’ appointment. I am not going to lie because thankfully things have progressed since then, but it was painful and unpleasant. I don’t think the nurse who performed the test was very experienced. She had speculums of varying sized lined up on a trolley in the room and talked out oud to herself about which she might use. Her colleague, who by chance was doing the same to my flat mate, came into the room to get her speculums from the trolley and they seemed to compare notes.
It wasn’t just uncomfortable and humiliating. The information provided was scant and her inability to find my cervix, which she complained about to me, meant I left thinking that I had wasted her time and caused her additional work because I didn’t have one. Her equally inexperienced colleague had the same issue with my flat-mate and when we got back home, she was so distressed that she called a helpline to ask what happened if you didn’t have a cervix.
Fortunately for both of us we did have cervixes but hers was ‘at the side’ and mine was ‘at the back’. This was information which was not gleaned by me until the midwife told me, following the birth of my first child. Since then I have prefaced the insertion of any speculum with the information about the whereabouts of my cervix which has helped. It hasn’t always meant that they have found it and for too many years I bled following appointments in response to a speculum which was wielded in a slicing movement during the search.
I haven’t been the only one to learn more since the early 1990s. I think the practice nurses where probably told to complete the Well Woman appointments without adequate training as the hunt for the cervix wasn’t the only issue. During the same appointment, which had a focus on healthy eating, I reached out about my eating disorder and was given some appalling advice so I think it probably all needs to be chalked to different times. It did leave me feeling anxious so I understand the barriers but I am glad to say it didn’t stop me moving on to better times with it all.
More recent experiences
More recently I have had much better experiences in my local practice where I think they know what they are doing. Even during the period of cell changes when I was required to attend once a year, it was worth the way it often turned out. I think that since then training has improved, as has the knowledge generally around anatomy. In addition, discussion of ‘women’s issues’ has become less taboo and although many still won’t discuss topics such as those included in TMA Sexual Health, this will change slowly and surely as awareness is raised and stigma is reduced.
My appointment letter for my next cervical screening test came in some weeks ago but with the holidays approaching I am free to attend the clinic so I must call and make an appointment this week. If you have concerns about cervical screening, want more information or have had test results that you don’t understand or want to discuss, check out Jo’s Trust for all the latest information.
To see who else is writing about cervical screening click the badge above or check out more of my Tell Me About … Sexual Health posts.