Three years ago, on my 28th birthday, I went for a smear test.
When I think of activities I’d like to do for my birthday, I’d normally go with bowling, seeing a play, taking some art class like pottery or printing, cinema trip etc. rather than have a smear. But, since I’d moved between surgeries when moving houses, the NHS thought this was my first smear and an over due one at that. (It was my second, first had been all fine. Wooo)
A couple of years before my Dad had been diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct. Obviously this is not connected to cervical cancer, but they always do that things of ‘Do you have a history of cancer in the family?’ and until that point I didn’t think we had. I still had both parents, my Grandmother was then 99, my Granddad was 88, all uncles and aunts were, as far as I knew, in relatively good heath, as were my siblings. My Grandfather had died of a heart attack at 75, my Nan died 9 years before of various things, not including cancer.
I could have put off the smear, the last one had been fine, this one would be too. But, despite the possibly unfortunate timing of it being my birthday, I recognised that this is just something that as a woman you have to do. And I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to get tested and make sure everything is ok. Women under 25 don’t automatically get invited to be tested and many have lost their lives to it. Yes, it might be mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes, but that’s not risking my health over.
So I went along, the very lovely nurse spotted it was my birthday, she made apologies and we got it done. And then it was out of my mind and I felt good that I’d got it done, could wait for that all clear letter and see them again in three years.
But that wasn’t quite how it worked out. I got the letter through and when I opened it, it said I needed to go in to talk about my results, that there were some concerns and there was a pamphlet outlining how they deal with pre-cancerous and cancerous cells. I couldn’t breathe, I burst into tears and sat on the floor outside my bedroom. I was still living with my ex boyfriend at the time and he managed to calm me down and I rang to sort my appointment and I read over and over the pamphlet. I tried to put it aside but all I had running through my head was an approximation of ‘Oh no, I’ve got cancer, oh no I’ve got cancer…’ *You can probably replace the ‘no’ with stronger words, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
I haven’t still got the letter, but I do remember that it said that my test had shown abnormal cells. This doesn’t mean that you will develop cancer. This is what the NHS website says about it:
“Abnormal cells that are picked up during cervical screening often return to normal on their own, so your doctor may recommend waiting to see if they do.
However, if more significant abnormalities are detected at an early stage there is the option of having treatment to remove them before they have a chance to become cancerous.
For every 100 women who have cervical screening, about six will have an abnormal result.
It is very rare for cancer to be diagnosed from the results of a cervical screening test. Less than one in 1,000 test results show invasive cancer.
If you have abnormal results, you may be told that you have:
- borderline or low-grade changes (called ‘dyskaryosis’)
- moderate or severe (high-grade) dyskaryosis
If your result is low-grade, it means that although there are some abnormal cell changes, they are very close to being normal and may disappear without treatment.
If your result is high-grade dyskaryosis, your sample will not be tested for HPV, but you will be offered colposcopy in order to check the changes in your cervical cells.
All these results show that you have abnormal cell changes. This does not mean that you have cancer or will get cancer. It just means that some of your cells are abnormal and if they are not treated they may develop into cervical cancer.”
I went to the doctors and I was referred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Newcastle for a colposcopy and either a punch biopsy or wire loop biopsy, to remove the abnormal cells. I only told a few people, not my family because I didn’t want them to worry unnecessarily, and some friends offered to come with me for the treatment. It was only due to be a short procedure, so I had a few hours off work. I went on my own, and foolishly I’d not eaten, partially because I don’t really have breakfast, but also because I was worried about being sick from nerves and thought it was better to have an empty stomach.
At the RVI, the doctor talked me through the results again, there’s a scale of 0-6, 0 is fine, 6 is cancerous, I had a 5 and they thought I was likely to have a wire loop biopsy, as there were quite a few cells. She asked if it was to have a trainee consultant in on the procedure to help his training, yep, fine, people have to learn and I was taken to a room to change and get ready.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the TV screen set up to show the procedure, presumably to help the new consultant, but I just didn’t look at it. I don’t need to have a close up of my insides to watch! The nurse talked me though getting my local anesthetic and we chatted about stuff whilst the procedure went ahead.
I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t comfortable. At one point there was a sharp pain where the anesthetic hadn’t got but it was like a sharp pinch that made my eyes water and me yelp a little, but they fixed that. It’s unnerving having people looking into you whilst you’re awake and essentially cutting away at you, but the alternative is far worse. I can put up with a bit of discomfort to avoid getting cancer and all that goes with it.
It took about 6 weeks to fully heal and I was due for another smear in 6 months. I actually had it a little earlier as I was headed for Tanzania and thankfully the treatment had worked and all looked clear, my next test would be scheduled for three years time. When I returned to the UK a year later I requested another smear because I still nervous about abnormal cells returning and although this is not something that is usually done, the doctor listened to my concerns and I did have another, again clear.
I am extremely lucky. I seem to be fine now and I will attend the next test when I get that letter through. Unfortunately, not everyone is. I know women who are terrified of having a smear done as they think it will be awful and uncomfortable. It’s not great. The more stressed you are about it, the more uncomfortable it will be. But surely it’s better to be tested and know you are OK, or know that things may not be quite right but get treated for it.
If you are scared talk to your female friends, most of them should have had at least one smear. I was really surprised how many of my friends had received abnormal test results, but are now actually fine. So please don’t be afraid, please don’t ignore the letters or skip your appointments. There is lots of information and support for you if you need it. I’ve put links below for Jo’s Trust – the only UK charity dedicated to supporting women & their loved ones affected by cervical cancer & cervical abnormalities – and for the NHS information pages which are really clear and helpful.
As always, the title of this post relates to a song. I chose this line from Afterlife by Ingrid Michaelson because it’s a song about getting through things and the video is about facing your fears and seeing that it is better on the other side.
Please do comment, share, let people know. If anyone has questions then please ask them, I’m not a medical expert at all, but sometimes talking about your worries can help.