Eeww, those words – pap smear – sound so…so…uncomfortable. The thoughts of going for a cervical check might leave us ladies squirming a little in our seats. But however uncomfortable it might feel to talk about them, or undergo them, they are necessary and helpful.
I have had about 6 or 7 pap smear tests (short for Papanicolaou test, they smear the cells onto a laboratory slide) in the past 16 years. My most recent experience was last week.
The first test I had was at the 6 week routine mum-check-up following the birth of my first baby. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t do any research before hand. I had just endured the trauma of a rather invasive little event called childbirth, so this was like a Sunday stroll in comparison.
However, if I had never been examined ‘down below’ in my life before by a complete stranger, I know I would have felt very nervous going in for this test. If that’s the case for you, here are some good to know points to help set your mind at ease.
- This is a routine medical test for the nurse or doctor performing it so there’s no need to feel nervous.
- The best time to have you smear test is halfway through your cycle (10-14 days after the first day of your period, if you are having your periods).
- Visit the toilet in the waiting room just before you go in so that there’s is no fullness in your bladder which may lead you to feel uncomfortable.
- It is not necessary, but may set your mind at ease if you bring some baby wipes or flushable toilet wipes with you to the medical centre and use them to clean yourself in the toilet before the test.
- It doesn’t matter what you wear, whether you wear trousers or a skirt you will be asked to remove all clothing from the waist down, to lie on an examination table and to cover yourself with a disposable cloth or towel.
- You may be tempted to chat the hind leg off a donkey because you are nervous and you start talking about all sorts of other random events in your life.
- You will be asked to bend your legs, to place heels as close to your buttocks as possible and to allow your knees to flop open.
- The test itself only takes a few seconds.
- The nurse or doctor will insert a metal speculum, this may feel slightly cold and can make a tiny creaking sound as it is opened.
- At this point it’s likely you might tense up and not say a word. Apparently relaxing your jaw helps to relax your vaginal muscles. Nowadays I keep quiet because I am determinedly concentrating on my jaw and thinking about something else nice instead – like the lovely chocolate I’m going to treat myself to afterwards.
- A narrow instrument will be inserted through the speculum to extract a cell sample, you may not feel a thing or you may feel a very slight uncomfortable pressing sensation. It should not be painful.
- Bring a panty liner or light sanitary towel with you too. In all the tests I have had, I had some light spotting after one of them. This can be completely normal but if the bleeding is very heavy or lasts longer than 24 hours, you should contact your GP.
- They will send the sample off to a lab for testing and if there are any anomalies you will be notified and asked to return for further testing.
- If you get results that show abnormal cells, it doesn’t mean you have cancer, it could be due to other problems, like an infection in your cervix.
- In Ireland, you are advised to be rechecked every 3 years if you are aged between 25 and 44 and every 5 years if you are aged between 45 and 60.
Why should you have a cervical check?
The smear test or cervical check is not a test for cervical cancer but is a test done in a laboratory for cell changes in the cervix. Some of these changes could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.
Once your sample is sent off to a lab and tested you will be alerted if any changes have been discovered.
If changes are discovered they are classed as either low-grade or high-grade. Low-grade changes are common and they clear up on their own but if high-grade changes are discovered, then a more detailed examination is necessary.
High-grade changes may take years to develop into cancer cells and so treatment is possible when screening identifies them. This is why it is important to be checked on the recommended schedule as it allows for timely treatment, if it is needed.
The cervical check service is free in Ireland with over 4,500 registered GPs, doctors and nurses who carry out cervical screening tests in more than 1,400 locations nationwide.
You can check when you are due your next screening appointment on the website by entering your details (PPS number and date of birth) on the cervical check website.
Irish Cervical Screening in the media
The Cervical Screening process came under scrutiny in Ireland in May 2018 when it was revealed that over 200 women were given false negative information regarding their smear tests. The HSE (Health service Executive) use three labs to test the results, two of them are in Ireland and one of them is in the US. A US based lab is used because there are not enough quality-assured labs available in Ireland to meet the need of the screening programme.
If you have any concerns, you can read the latest updates from the HSE here.
In spite of the negative press that this service received, the HSE has said that in the past 10 years 50,000 women were informed of high-grade changes and that this had “improved their health chances considerably”.
I certainly don’t love having to have these check-ups but feel that I owe it to my family and myself to ensure that I am making the most of all the services available to me.
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