I got my first smear test this week. At 27, I am two years over the suggested age to get your very first one, so why did it take me so long?
First off, I never received the letter informing me I was due a smear test. Once I hit 26, and my Mum asked if I'd had mine, I used this as an excuse. I never got the letter so I must be off the hook, right? Obviously not. I knew full well I had to book it but buried my head in the sand instead.
Speaking with friends and colleagues, this is not uncommon, with many admitting they had done the same or were still to book theirs. But why are we all putting it off when we know cervical cancer can develop at a young age? As recently as January we heard sad the news of Alice Taylor, who died of cervical cancer at just 26.
Related: Vicky Phelan urges women to continue to go for smear tests despite delays
What was I so nervous about?
If putting things on the long finger was an Olympic Sport, I'd be a gold medallist. To be honest this was because I was so anxious, thinking it would be equal parts embarrassing and painful. I dreaded it. I didn't listen to my Mum or friends when they told me it's absolutely fine and just a little uncomfortable. Instead I thought this was just women minimising something to make it less daunting (women are very good at that).
As for embarrassing, yes it's not exactly fun to have someone peering in-between your legs, but having had multiple bikini waxes you get over it quite quickly, and your doctor doesn't think twice about it either.
Luckily my GP is incredibly patient and put me at ease almost immediately. I couldn't believe when it was over asking, 'was that it?' What I had built up in my head for months on end was really very painless and simple.
Related: Despite the breach of trust, please, don’t stop having smears
Step by step- what happens?
The procedure really is so simple and over quickly for most people. First your doctor will ask you to undress completely from the waist down and to lie on the bed with your knees slightly apart.
When you're comfortable they will insert a speculum into your vagina, which holds it open so the cervix is visible. Then, using a small brush, your doctor will collect some cells from the cervix. You may not feel this, but some women feel a slight scratching sensation, but this shouldn't be painful.
How to make it easier
Breathe. Do some deep breathing in the waiting area before you go in as you want to be as relaxed as possible. Going in feeling tight and tensed up will only make things more difficult.
Wear a dress or skirt. You're already going to feel a bit awkward and if wearing a dress means you have a bit of your modesty preserved (I didn't fancy the idea of wearing a top and trousers and then being naked from the waist down). This may sound trivial but anything that makes you feel more at ease and relaxed will make it much quicker and straightforward.
Don't look. I found by not looking at the speculum it was a little less scary- just lie back, close your eyes and breathe.
Be vocal. If you're nervous, tell your GP. They should be completely understanding of this and walk you through it slowly. Also, do the same if you are finding it painful, you can stop at any time. If you're finding the procedure uncomfortable your doctor can reposition you or even use a smaller speculum to make it easier.
Find a nice GP. Sounds obvious but this makes all the difference. From talking to people who perhaps haven't had the best experience, it's usually down to the doctor. If you don't have a regular GP, or don't feel comfortable booking a smear test with your usual doctor, we would suggest asking around. Speak to friends and family who would recommend their GP and book with them instead. Ideally you want someone who makes you feel comfortable and isn't trying to rush you out the door.
Just book it
It's easy when you're in your mid-twenties to believe you're invincible, that there's no possible way cervical cancer could affect you. A smear test is often regarded as an unpleasant nuisance, easy to put on that list of 'things I really need to get around to'. Day-to-day it doesn't seem like a pressing issue so its so easy to keep saying you'll book it next week.
The thing is, getting it done could save your life, so just book it.
Header Image: Unsplash