Thinking of giving your cervical smear a miss? Please don’t.
Recently a young woman I know disclosed that she had never had a smear. In my working life I talk to many women of all age groups and this is not uncommon.
Unwittingly she had just opened up the one subject that I cannot keep my mouth shut about.
Six years ago I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Over the next few months I had a haemorrhage, radical hysterectomy, removal of lymph nodes, a haematoma and a blood transfusion and had to accept the end of my dreams of having children.
The reality TV star Jade Goody had recently died and there had been a rush of women having smears due to her work to raise awareness, so my test took slightly longer to come back than normal.
Today, I feel incredibly lucky. I had an amazing support network of family and friends and many reasons stay focused and strong.
Don’t get me wrong, at the time it felt like somebody had pulled the rug out from under me and then kicked me. I had to close my successful business and risk losing all my clients but more importantly I did not know if I would come back to work at all.
I was very lucky to have a family friend who was an experienced gynaecological nurse. I find it helps me to have knowledge to cope with things and a full understanding of the situation was really important to me. So in the midst of the drama she calmly gave me a cup of tea and went through the facts.
I had never missed a smear in my adult life. At the time of my diagnosis I felt absolutely fine. No bleeding. No symptoms.
Without my smear test I would be dead.
Why do we need smear tests?
As soon as we are sexually active we can be exposed to around 18 different types of high risk HPV (human papilloma virus).
80% of women are infected with genital HPV in their lives without ever knowing, because the body’s immune system clears it and we are all none the wiser.
Nobody knows why but a small percentage of women do not clear the infection and it can remain dormant for many years. In some cases this is when cancer can develop. In the UK around 3,000 women are diagnosed every year.
Cervical screening helps the medical world monitor any changes that would indicate potential for cancer developing. Your smear is not a test to find cancer – it is to check for abnormalities at an early stage.
Our bodies are amazing. And we are lucky to have the opportunity to attend cervical screening – this certainly isn’t the case worldwide – so it makes sense to give your cervix a fighting chance.
Why wouldn’t you have a smear test?
Women give all kinds of reasons not to, but there really is no good excuse to avoid your cervical screening.
It’s embarrassing. At the risk of being blunt, if you have had sex you can sure as hell cope with a sterile speculum in the hands of a medical professional for ten minutes to dramatically reduce your chance of undetected cervical cancer. It is usually a female practice nurse who does the test and any worries you have can be discussed beforehand.
I’ve only slept with my husband so I don’t need to have one. If you have had one or one hundred and one sexual partners you can develop cervical cancer.
It hurts. Generally – unless there is a medical reason – it is not a painful experience and now a soft brush is used to collect the cells so it really should not be unpleasant. The more you relax the easier it is all round.
Who needs to be screened?
- All women aged between 25 and 64 are invited for screening. Between 25 to 49 you’ll be screened every three years, and between 50 to 64 every five years.
- At 65 or over you are only screened if you have not been screened since you were 50 or if you have had recent abnormal test results.
The good news is that a vaccination to help reduce chances of cervical cancer is now available for young women.
As for the lady I mentioned at the beginning, she had a smear and there are no concerns. This is the case for the majority of women… above all else, a smear can be reassuring.
Find out more…