I have been struggling recently with a lot of issues when it comes to my mental health and I have decided that maybe writing about them will help me possibly work through my issues. So here is my “Time to Talk Tuesdays” if I can help someone else by letting them know they aren’t alone or give someone words they can’t get out to explain to a loved one then I will be happy. So this week I am talking smear tests! Yes they aren’t the most pleasant things to go through but they really are such an imperative procedure in the prevention/early detection of cervical cancer and abnormal cell growth.
I was called in for my routine smear when I was pregnant with Button and I think it was about October when I decided to finally make my appointment. By gosh am I glad I did! However I am very aware that a lot of women feel anxiety and fear around having smears or what they could find from the smear.
So if you haven’t had a smear before or you are a man basically they have you lay on your back with your knees bent and feet together, then you let your knees drop to the side. They then insert a curved plastic instrument called a speculum into your vagina then open it slightly (this is the uncomfortable bit) then they take a swab of your cervix and remove the speculum. It really is only for a short time of embarrassment or discomfort for something that could potentially save your life!
You usually get your results in a letter a few weeks after your smear; I remember exactly what I was doing when I opened my letter. I was on the phone to Rachel from Rocking2Stomas and it said that I had moderate abnormal cells that I needed to have removed and a referral had been put in. The first thing that I thought was “Seriously do I need anymore issues?” then it was “Christ do I have cancer?”
I sat and read the leaflets on the colposcopy which is the procedure that removes the abnormal cells via a large loop electrical excision LLETZ which isn’t as scary as it sounds but I will explain that a bit more later. So I was reading the leaflets and there was a bit that said if you experience some symptom please go to your Doctor. I thought that’s it I have cancer, I won’t see my children grow up etc etc I’m such a drama queen! So I went onto the Jo’s Trust website which the only cervical cancer charity in the UK and looked up more info on early signs of cervical cancer and I had all but one symptom. I panicked again and booked an appointment to see my GP.
I walked into my appointment and looked at my GP who is quite used to me by now and simply said “I am being a hypochondriac today”, he just looked at me over his glasses and waited for me to carry on, I told him about the smear test results and that my LLETZ procedure was booked for the next week but I had all these symptoms and I had been onto “Dr Google” which he responded with “never use Dr Google!” He felt my tummy and suggested take bloods to check my ovaries and wait for my LLETZ procedure results. I thought that, that was absolutely fine and my anxieties calmed down slightly. My blood results came back but as I never heard anything back it must be okay, part of me I guess has fear over what they might say.
The day of my procedure came and I felt really scared, nervous and alone, as Ra-Ra was at nursery, Button was with his Grandma and Auntie, of course 00Steve was at work. Once I was in the colposcopy nurses room I didn’t feel so bad anymore. I explained I was having a heavy period but came along regardless like the letter said, Suzanne who was my colposcopist just shrugged it off and said that it doesn’t often prevent them from doing the procedure. I asked lots of questions as I told her I was planning on writing this post and she was very free with her answers.
The procedure itself isn’t too dissimilar to a smear test although you are propped up slightly with your legs in padded stirrups, which not only gives the colposcopist a better view but means you aren’t going to ache or tire by holding your legs in the air! They then insert a speculum and squirt some water and a special dye. The dye shows up any abnormal cells that need to be removed. There is a high powered microscope that allows the staff to see your cervix which does not enter your body, this then is projected onto a TV screen which allows you to watch as well. Clearly I watched! Heck I have seen inside my large and small intestine so why not look at my cervix too!
The dye showed up that I definitely had cells that needed removing but my cervix kept on ‘jumping’ out of the way it is just a sphincter muscle at the end of the day so they just adjusted the speculum frequently and carried on. I had a local anaesthetic injection into my cervix (that I didn’t watch!) which hurt around the same as a blood test. I experienced a short burst of heart palpitations which is normal as the injection has a small amount of adrenaline in. I was a bit of a pain with all my tattoos but they managed to find some bare skin to wrap the earth cuff around as a safety precaution when they started to use the electrical loop.
It was just essentially scrapping off the cells that we didn’t want anymore, wash it with iodine and cauterise it. It didn’t take long at all, the staff at The James Cook University Hospital were fantastic. The weirdest bit was being able to see how my period leaves my uterus and it was not at all how I expected it to be! I was told the cells would be sent off to the lab and I would hear from them around 4 weeks after (we had Christmas smack bang after so it could be longer) If the cells weren’t cancerous but just pre-cancerous I would have to book a smear in 6 months and they would check for the HPV virus too (this can go onto cause cervical cancer but not always) if everything was clear I could go back to regular smears.
I was given an aftercare advice sheet which said to-
- avoid using tampons for 4 weeks, sanitary towels to be used instead
- abstain from vaginal intercourse for approximately 4 weeks
- avoid swimming for approximately 2 weeks
- avoid heavy lifting and strenuous exercise for 2/3 weeks
- normal activities, including light exercise could continue
- there maybe a temporary change in your menstrual pattern
- you may experience some abdominal discomfort or crampy tummy pain and to take mild pain relief
- some bleeding is normal, however if you experience very heavy, excessive bleeding to seek urgent advice
- watery discharge is normal for a few weeks, however if you experience a dark, smelly discharge, abdominal pain or develop a temperature you may have an infection. contact your GP and antibiotics maybe given and vaginal swabs taken
4 weeks with no sex is definitely not easy if you are in a relationship with a healthy sex life that’s for sure! I started bleeding again 10 days after the procedure and definitely experienced the pain and the discharge which weren’t pleasant, unfortunately for me I did contract an infection. The bleeding became thick, dark and the volume increased so I rang the colposcopy department and they told me it was likely an infection and to go see my GP which I did and was given antibiotics.
My results showed that I had CIN3 which is pre-cancerous and not cancer but I still felt heavy even though I know we got to it before anything nasty developed. CIN3 is that the full thickness of the surface layer is affected, whereas cervical cancer would be deeper than that. I am so glad I didn’t let the anxieties I have had around having a smear affect me going because it allowed me to realise it wasn’t all bad and that I could go again which has essentially been an early life saver.
It has been in the papers recently that the ‘Jade Goody effect’ has worn off with smear attendances at a new low in 20 years. If you don’t know who Jade Goody was well she was originally a Big Brother contestant who was loved by the nation, she ended up contracting and unfortunately dying from cervical cancer.
Please go have your smear if you have been requested or if you haven’t had one get in touch with your doctors about booking one, you never know it may be the best decision you ever make!