It happens every 3 years. Through the letterbox plops an ominously official-looking envelope stamped NHS. Every time I greet it with a shudder. A faceless administrator has printed an automatically generated letter informing me I’m invited for a cervical smear. Euch there it is again: the involuntary shudder.
I have had 2 children. If you’ve had any of the little treasures yourself you will know that having a stranger’s hand disappear up your flue quickly becomes acceptable, indeed expected, behaviour. I had an 8 day slow labour ending in my baby girl being removed by what can only be described as prehistoric garden implements, followed by the heavily accented African doctor pulling on a latex glove up to his elbow and informing me the placenta was stuck and he had to perform a manual removal. Think vet and cow’s arse. The second experience was no better. Contractions were 1 minute apart for 7 hours, for the majority of which I was screaming and I’m reasonably sure I saw poo. That one ended in an emergency caesarean section.
And yet still the shudder every three years. So why not just ignore it? Well, primarily because I’m not an idiot. I know that detecting and removing abnormal cervical cells can prevent cervical cancer. I know it isn’t a test for cancer as such but it looks for abnormal cells or changes that could be an early warning sign.
I’ve previously had abnormal cells detected and was sent for an intimate rendezvous with a consultant at the hospital. I am forever thankful to my mate Helen for warning me that Dr Cockcroft would appear through a door wearing extendable goggles because if she hadn’t I’m sure that the sight of him as I half sat, half lay with my legs over those ski jump things would’ve produced the hysterical laughter of a woman on the edge. Instead I greeted him with a smile and a wave. He plunged on in there without so much as a, “Nice weather for this time of year”, announced I had an erosion and that he would treat it there and then. Now us gingers are scientifically proven to require stronger pain killers and more anaesthetic than the rest of you so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a local injected directly into my cervix made me faint. Yet it did.
And so it came to pass that with a sigh and a bit of, “Oh bugger I forgot, I’ll do it tomorrow” banter with the man for a few days, I made the appointment.
Finally, 3 weeks later, the day arrived. I swept into the room when my name was called and with my trademark relaxed manner immediately let it be known that I was absolutely shitting myself and if she told me to relax when she got to the crucial moment of insertion I was likely to squeeze my pelvic floor so tight I would not be held responsible if she lost a finger.
We got through the unpleasant discharge questions and before I knew it I’d got my knickers off for Lauren and was on the thinnest bed outside of a prison cell with my knees up, heels tucked into my bum, ready to assume the position.
Having let my legs flop open, the freakishly cold and surprisingly slimy feeling speculum was inserted quick smart and the little swab taken. I asked Lauren if she was actually having a look up there and instantly regretted it when she confirmed that she was. I felt strangely defensive of how my cervix was presenting itself. Lord knows why; it’s not like I could’ve done anything to prepare it beforehand like brushing my teeth before the dentist. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I had put matching socks on that morning.
Then it was done. I was assured that my cervix looked just fine and was left to get my jeans back on. Behind a curtain. The woman had just been peering intently at my cervix but still thought it proper to pull the curtain while I put my knickers on. Bonkers.
Seated back at her desk, Lauren told me that when I’d said I was scared she had begun to brace herself for hysterics on the table and had been pleasantly surprised at how relaxed I’d made myself. I felt my face do a proud smile. She told me my results would be in the post within two weeks and I’d given her a nice change from diabetic feet.
Cervical cancer is a terrible, sneaky, indiscriminate killer. More than half of those diagnosed are aged below 45. Cervical screening can prevent around 45% of cervical cancer cases in women in their 30s, rising with age to 75% in women in their 50s and 60s, who attend regularly. I want my children to grow up with an alive me and if this 15 minute toe-curlingly embarasssing and uncomfortable experience once every 3 years might help that then I’m prepared to endure the relatively short lived terror that it invokes.
Less than two weeks later I received a letter telling me my cervix was perfectly normal. It is only when receiving a medical test result that I’m happy to have anything of mine described in such a way.