CW – smear tests.
I am by no means a prude, but I can be pretty reluctant about what I put on the internet. This is due to people like my dad reading my blog, neighbours, and even the postman. But I need to talk to you about my fanny. I need to talk to you about this issue because I was someone who had not taken the topic seriously. But it was serious, and it could be for you too.
As a disclaimer, I want to start out by saying that this blog has a happy ending. I don’t have cervical cancer. The thing is though, that I could have done. I want to talk to you all about smear tests.
My 25th birthday
When my 25th birthday hit last year I had a letter through saying I needed to go for my smear test. Nope. This was not something for me, or maybe it was, but right now it wasn’t a priority. I have the best mum in the world, but we don’t talk about sex. Our household was very let’s not talk about it. Thus, I have some interesting tales about puberty, boys, and the fact that I thought an orgasm was meant to last for thirty minutes! Needless to say I was somewhat disappointed the first time it happened. Seriously disappointed. But I will save those for another day!
When I was a teenager I had the HPV vaccine. I wasn’t exactly sure what HPV was, but I have always been very pro jabs that will protect you. I knew it was to do with not getting cancer, sounds great: let’s have this. I was in fact the first year of girls to be given this vaccine, and I (wrongly) believed that this would prevent me from getting HPV.
So why didn’t I want to go for my smear test? Let me list the reasons for you.
I live in a village. My mum has worked at the primary school for around 20 years, and everyone knows me. I think I am the only dyed red head in the village. The last thing I wanted was to get my legs up in stirrups, to find that the lady sticking some sort of contraption in me was going to ask how my business was, and how my mum was keeping since retiring.
I guess this comes under ‘embarrassment’ too. But what if my vagina was abnormal. Perhaps something was in the wrong place, I was smelly, had chubbier thighs than everyone else in the world, and that heaven forbid I would have to have my skirt pulled up in a room with bright white lights where everyone could see my belly sprawled out, untoned in all its glory.
The pain. I had had really painful sex in the past. Losing my virginity had been near on a nightmare, and I often bled. I didn’t want to be in discomfort. I didn’t want my vagina to be held open by sterile metal claws while someone went fishing in my lady parts.
I genuinely thought that the HPV vaccine was meant to protect me 100%, totally. I thought they must’ve sent me a letter by accident and not checked my medical records. The nhs are always sending out the wrong/multiple/quadruple letters by mistake. As grateful for it as I am, it is stretched, so this was just a mistake letter.
I have so many medical things in my life (I’m a type one diabetic, and there is a lot to go with that) that surely this wasn’t going to effect me too. Brilliant logic I know.
Only a tiny pinch of my friends had been. So it obviously wasn’t a big deal.
As a little bit of further background, we have had a lot of deaths in the family recently. This is alongside some members who have survived, but suffered badly with cancer. I had also been having really severe pains and difficulty urinating. Similar to a UTI, but seemed so much worse than I had ever experienced. These kept occurring. I would still occasionally bleed after sex, and when I looked up the symptoms I decided I should take advantage of the free smear test. I couldn’t have my mum lose anyone else.
The day of the smear
Suddenly it was early one Tuesday morning and I have my best knickers on. I have veeted, showered only minutes before, and left off tights so that there is no faffing about. I turn up, go in, and the nurse isn’t someone I have never met before (phew!) She is also the most professional, soft but straight talking woman I could have imagined. There is no need for the fancy knickers as I am asked to slip them off in private, lie on the bed and cover myself with a paper sheet. Score, no one is seeing my wobbly tummy today! I am instantly more calm when I am asked to put my hands in fists under my back to lift myself up. There are no metal stirrups. No weird equipment.
She asks me questions about my sexual health, and is obviously worried when I mention my symptoms.
Now the thing I think everyone wants to know the most about is the pain. I can’t lie, I didn’t find it painful. It was odd, and it took longer than I had expected as she needed to collect more samples. She said there was something visibly not quite right. She asked if I had done a Chlamydia test recently. I had, when I started seeing my new partner. But too embarrassed to go in, had done a self home kit. I was STI free.
At one point it felt like she was tickling my cervix, which was weird and a bit awkward, but I didn’t actually feel any pain. She told me she could see things weren’t quite as they should be, but not to worry for the time being as it may be nothing.
Roll on Christmas Eve and I think I have a Christmas card delivered. It’s not, its a letter from the labs. I have the HPV virus, and irregular cells. An appointment to have a biopsy has been made for me in the new year. Cue holding back tears at a Christmas party whilst also messaging your boyfriend who is in another country to say look, don’t worry but…
I didn’t know a great deal about HPV and presumed it was an STI. Something I had caught from unprotected sex with a carrier. I would need antibiotics and to rethink my life. I was also shocked my vaccination had failed!
A week before my biopsy
The week before my biopsy was the worst of all. As a human I am the best I know at catastrophising a situation. I was sure I was going to die. I thought of every scenario. I thought this was typical, I have just moved out, got a lovely boyfriend, am loving my job, my friends, my everything was coming together. I had a really bad UTI again and found myself weeping on the toilet between advertisers trying to sell me magazine space. If only they knew… the weeping turned to howling. I already have a tube in my stomach; surely I have my quota of illness?! And I want babies so desperately one day, this was a dream that would have to be over…
Unlike previously with my smear test, I now had a totally new frame of mind. Anyone could’ve looked up/stuck up/done anything to my fanny if they were qualified to tell me I was okay and safe. Pain was no longer an issue, nor was embarrassment. I would’ve streaked through the hospital car park if that would’ve helped.
The morning of my biopsy
My mum had to drive me, and we had to have an awkward conversation about HPV. I decided being both adults I would just upfront say, look, I have this because I am sexually active. It isn’t my fault, but those are the facts. That is what I said, and she was supportive. She isn’t stupid, and she would support me through anything.
This time as I entered the clinic there were two nurses. Again they were the sweetest women. I asked heaps of questions and not once was I made to feel stupid. HPV is not an STI. It is a virus, and it is a virus most of us will carry and pass on at some point in our lives. It works in a way similar to cold sores. Once you have the virus, it’s always in your body but you normally shake it off on your own. As someone with a weak immune system, my body hadn’t been able to shake it off yet so it had lingered and developed some dodgy potential pre-cancerous cells.
I also found out that although I had been vaccinated, that the vaccine only works against a very limited amount of strains of HPV. Around 3%.
Again I got to have a paper towel across my tummy, but this time my feet were held in stirrups. It genuinely wasn’t uncomfortable, other than being cold and feeling a bit vulnerable in my lady garden. I say lady garden, because this time round I hadn’t bothered with the veet. They see hundreds of thousands of fannies a year. We all have our preferences.
My nerves kicked in when the first nurse, that was all up in my business said ‘were going to need a bigger speculum’. ‘Oh god’ I said, ‘have I got an alien fanny?!’ I was reassured I hadn’t. There are different sizes for different women on different days. A coloured dye was then painted onto my cervix; it was as weird as it sounds. Then a little tiny bit was removed. All the while I am just thinking thank the lord I can’t see what’s going on down there, you just get on with what you need to do. It was all over a lot quicker than I had anticipated. I was told to pop on a sanitary towel as there would likely be bleeding for the next 2-3 days. This is when they said something so gross. Well I found it SO gross. They said a scab would from and then drop off which I would probably notice when I wiped. I did. It was gross.
8 Weeks after the biopsy
The next part was a waiting game. I felt relieved that I hadn’t heard sooner. They said results could take up to 8 weeks. If you don’t hear when there’s a medical problem, it’s normally a good sign. It normally means it is less urgent. Don’t get me wrong, I was still worried, but less catastrophising and more trying the positive thinking. Speaking to George about writing this post was cathartic for me, and I felt adamant that I would at least try to persuade other women to get checked. It is free, it is quick, it is routine, and it really does save lives.
My results came back clear this time, there was no further action to be taken other than tests once every year instead of every 3/5 years. It’s a pain in my bum (or fanny) to schedule in more time for medical checks, but let’s face it; it is much less of a pain than cancer.
I was over the moon, and celebrated that night. Even telling my neighbour in the street that I had a healthy cervix! This was probably the most embarrassing part of the story as she had forgotten that I had gone for a biopsy and just thought I was giving TMI…
So whether you have had sex just the once, or are at it 4 times a day, whether you have had the HPV vaccine or not, and have zero warning signs: Just get checked.
Even if it’s just to hear that you don’t have an alien fanny…