In the news this week it has been reported that smear test rates are at a 20 year all time low. From my own experience I am really not surprised and totally understand why women may not go for their test. I had my first smear test when I was 34 and I am actually ashamed to say that I waited that long to be tested. Luckily the results came through and I didn’t have any problems, but I thought I would share my own experience as to why I waited so long to be tested and what my actual test was like.
The first time the letter came through inviting me for a smear test I think I must have been 20, which is a lot younger than when most people are invited for one. I don’t know why this was but assume it must be something to do with the age they send them out in the area I live in, and I don’t know if that is still the case or if everyone is just invited at 25 now. It was a letter I really didn’t want to receive. I read the leaflet enclosed and came to the conclusion that I was low risk so didn’t need to bother having the test. I didn’t really know what the test involved and certainly didn’t like the sound of having it done or want someone poking around inside me. I ended up binning the letter, forgetting about it and getting on with my life.
Then every three years I would receive the same letter, and yet again I would convince myself that I was low risk and there was no point in having the test done. I didn’t always throw the letter away straight away, sometimes I would hide it on top of my kitchen cupboards incase I would change my mind later. I always hoped I would change my mind, but I never did and would end up throwing the letters away after a few months had passed. I thought a smear test sounded uncomfortable and undignified and it wasn’t something I wanted to put myself through.
I then moved to Norway, and I actually thought at least I won’t get bothered by smear test letters there. Come to think of it we didn’t even register with a doctor. After 18 months we moved to Lithuania and I managed to again avoid the dreaded smear test. However, it was first mentioned to me at my first appointment when I had just found out I was pregnant with James. The gynecologist asked me when my last smear test was and I said I hadn’t had one and she gave me such a look of horror as to why had I been so stupid, and how can I not have had one? I explained that we don’t have regular gynecological appointments in the UK and I had just never gone for one, which really seemed to perplex her. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I was then going to be having my first internal examination there and then, not for a smear test but to check I was pregnant with an internal scan. I was asked to go into the bathroom and get changed into a disposable robe and come out and get onto the chair, a chair that was obviously specially designed for gynecological examinations. I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to expect and I had never heard of any of my friends back home having internal scans to check they were pregnant. I had told my husband not to bother coming to my first appointment because all it would be was filling in forms and answering questions, little did I know.
Over the next 9 months I was subjected to an internal examination at every appointment. I thought that maybe they would stop after the first trimester when they started scanning my pregnant belly from the outside rather than internally, but no every appointment I got told my cervix was closed, strong and long. It became a running joke with my husband and I about what my cervix would be like, until at the end of my pregnancy when we were willing it to no longer be closed. Even after James was born I was subjected to yet another internal scan to check everything was healing properly after my c section. I can’t fault how thorough the Lithuanian hospital were where I had James, and not only had they cared for me and delivered my baby, but they had made me face a fear of having an internal examination and I knew that the next time I would be invited for a smear test that I would actually attend, because it was no longer something I needed to fear.
Lithuania is very different to the UK. At the hospital I had James, it seemed that women took more care of their gynecological health than we do in the UK and that they attend regularly appointments to check everything is ok. I don’t know what the uptake on smear tests is like, but what I do know is that Lithuanian women seem to have far less of a problem of being naked in front of each other than we do in the UK. In swimming pool changing rooms they willingly shower naked in front of each other, walk around changing rooms naked and I have even seen women drying their hair or applying fake tan while they were naked. You go swimming in the UK and you don’t see any of this, at school we always used to keep our knickers on and avoided getting wet going through the showers after games lessons, and you learnt how to get change without revealing any body parts. This is how we grew up and maybe this is one of the reasons why we feel embarrassed about having a smear test, because we worry what people think and we don’t want to show any body part to a complete stranger.
We left Lithuania when James was 4 months old so I didn’t have a smear test there, but on returning back to the UK I registered with a doctor and was told I would be invited for a smear test in a few months. The nurse that registered me asked if I had had one before and I said no, but I explained that now I have a baby I am no longer so embarrassed by it so would make an appointment when I got the letter.
I went for my first smear test when I was 34 and it wasn’t as straightforward as it is often made out to be. I am sure the majority of tests are painless and only take a few minutes but mine was quite different. For starters I took James with me, probably not the best idea but he was young and I thought he could just sit in his pushchair and would be fine. Well, when I got asked to take my trousers and knickers off behind the curtain James didn’t like it because he couldn’t see me. I decided to just ignore his crying and thought it won’t take long so he will be fine. In the UK there was no bathroom in the room for me to get changed into a gown, there was no special chair to be meanovered at the right angle, it was just the standard couch they get you on with a light next to it so they can see where they are looking. It turns out my cervix likes to hide, so much so the nurse doing it had to go and find another nurse to locate it, all whilst James was crying. She even went and got another nurse to try and keep James calm, so all in all I had 3 nurses in the room. I didn’t even know a cervix could be hard to locate, I mean where does it go? I am not going to lie it was uncomfortable but I wanted it done, and the nurses were also determined to find my cervix so I didn’t have to make another appointment for them to try again. They were also brilliant; calm, reassuring and definitely put me at ease. My appointment probably lasted nearer 20 minutes, yes it was uncomfortable and it wasn’t the most dignified thing I have done with different nurses having a good look but I got it done and then was relieved when the results came through to say there was nothing wrong.
I don’t want to put anyone off from my experience because I know lots of people who have had painless smears and I think that is the case for the majority of people, I just wanted to be honest about mine. I think the thing about smear tests is they can detect abnormalities so they can be treated and cancer can be prevented. To me this makes it really worthwhile, because anything that helps me be around to see James grow up is certainly worth having.