My analytics tell me that 87% of my readers are women aged 18-45. Now I never trust these statistics entirely so I’ll apologise if this post isn’t relevant to you. In fact, scrap that; this message is one that everyone should hear.
We need to talk about cervical cancer. I know, I know. Cancer awareness saturates social media every single day, making it easy to lose its message/impact and of course, it’ll never happen to you, right? That’s what I used to think too – until the day it almost did.
You see, I ended up going through years of treatment for a problem that was detected via a smear test when I was just 19 years old. I went along for my very first smear test back in 2002 with no real hesitation. After giving birth twice by this point (once in front of a room full of medical students and surgeons) my
dignity reservations about getting my foof out for a stranger were non-existent.
I do, however, appreciate that if you haven’t had a medical professional look at your most intimate parts before, it can feel intimidating. Not to step on your ego but the pros have seen so many vulvas in their careers that yours won’t be anything new or special – soz.
I was asked to remove my jeans and underwear, lay on the bed and cover up with the sheet provided. A few moments later, the cheerful nurse told me to raise my knees, open my legs and relax. She tried to reassure me by suggesting that I imagine I was laying on a nice sunny beach somewhere (erm, not my usual beach pose) as the more relaxed your muscles are, the easier the process is.
The nurse then inserted a lubricated speculum (like a metal ducks beak – sounds scary but it’s really not) inside me and swept a few cells from my cervix using what looked and felt like a long cotton bud. That was it! The whole thing literally took a few minutes and didn’t hurt at all.
Fast forward a few weeks and I received a letter asking me to attend my local hospital for a colposcopy. I won’t lie; I was nervous about what this actually meant. The colposcopy was simply a more detailed look at my cervix. The procedure was the same as the earlier smear test, only this time, the nurse used a high-powered microscope and light to get a better view (at this point, my initial confidence had waned as I wondered if my foof was up for such detailed integration. Maybe I should have vajazzled or something).
The nurse then asked if she could do a few tests. The first one was an acetic acid colposcopy; sounds fun, huh? She applied a cotton pad soaked in acetic acid (dilute vinegar) to my cervix. The cells that turn white are abnormal. Mine were quite substantial so the nurse then asked if she could take a biopsy. This is simply taking a small sample of the cervical tissue using a punch tool. I found this bit a little uncomfortable and suffered from period-like cramps for a few days afterwards, however, was soon back to normal.
I awaited my results (again) and was asked back to the clinic after finding that my cells were grade CIN3. To clarify, this does not mean cancer! Carcinoma-in-situ is the official terminology and indicates that if left untreated, the cells may become cancerous in the future.
After this diagnosis, the next stage was to treat them using a loop excision. This procedure was a little more in-depth and required a local anaesthetic. The surgeon used a small wire loop with an electrical current running through it to cut away the affected area of tissue and seal the wound at the same time. I felt quite sore for a week or so and was told to go for a smear test again in six months time to see how things were.
Six months on, I dutifully attended my smear and, after another colposcopy, was informed that the abnormal cells had returned. This time, I was given a cone biopsy and treated with laser surgery. The same thing happened on my next smear, and again and again until several years of treatment prompted the consultants to suggest a hysterectomy.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have more children and the idea of eliminating that possibly for good left me overwhelmed. I chose to continue with the six-monthly treatments as before until a hysterectomy became the only option. Thankfully, it never got that far as, after eleven long years, I was finally given the all clear in 2014, meaning that I was back to three yearly smear tests.
My story isn’t intended to scare you; I wanted to share it to highlight just how important that initial smear test was for my own health and often think of the ‘what if’s‘ had I avoided this routine examination.
I also discovered that cervical cancer is something that is prevalent in my own family history. I don’t want to put too many details here as it isn’t my story to share but a member of my immediate family has been diagnosed with cervical cancer and after countless treatments, discovered last year that it is terminal.
So please, I urge you. Do not miss these vital appointments. They take just a few moments of your time and really do save lives. You can support #SmearForSmear and learn more about Jo’s Trust here.