A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way out of the front door with a rucksack on my back, all set for a weekend away. There was a letter addressed to me hanging out of the letterbox, so I ripped it open, expecting some boring, ignorable bumff (technical term) from the bank.
‘We are writing to invite you to make an appointment for NHS cervical screening.’
“Noooooo,” I groaned, very dramatically. “I’m old.”
This statement was met with (deserved) scorn from my boyfriend and I threw the letter aimlessly up the stairs. We headed off for our train and I didn’t waste another thought on the matter.
Until a couple of days later, in a quirk of weird incidental timing, I noticed various articles like this appearing online:
And I had several thoughts:
Is this actually surprising?
I can remember the concept of smear tests being introduced to me, when I was around fifteen. And honestly, I don’t think I could have been more horrified if you’d told me that at the age of twenty-five the NHS mandatorily ripped your toenails off and replaced them with those gross, fungal-y nails I thought all old people had. But it was okay, I told myself, twenty five – the age at which cervical screening is first offered to women by the NHS – was eons away, and I would presumably have achieved true maturity, poise and the ability to cope with all sorts of terrible adult things by then.
And I’m sure many women have never felt this way about smear tests. Women more comfortable with their bodies, more conscious of the importance of their health, more familiar with the uncomfortable fact that sometimes you have to show a medical professional your bits.
But it seems entirely believable to me that one in three women does not feel that way. Up until a couple of years ago, the idea of a smear test would have been absolute anathema to me. The humiliation would have been unthinkable. What if my junk was weird, and I’d never noticed? What if there were like eighteen medical students in the room? What if the doctor / nurse / clinician laughed at how clearly awkward and uncomfortable I was? What if it hurt? What if, what if, what if…
Good for me!
This lead to the realisation that – actually – I had acquired the ability to cope with this particular terrible adult thing. Not the other stuff, and not most other adult things to be honest, but the letter offering me a dreaded cervical screening had not even ruffled my feathers.
But this was because three unexpected things had happened to me in the last ten years:
- I had become more comfortable with my body. I’m still not what you’d call Miss Self Esteem, but I’m doing alright. At fifteen, I was chubby, cripplingly self-conscious and hid my shape as much as I could. Now I’m still chubby, but I have an adult perspective on how big a deal that is (not). I’m still self-conscious, but mostly because I’m half a foot taller than most people. And I still hide my shape, but more because jumpers are comfy and push-up bras are not. My body hasn’t really changed, but my perception has – and that’s been only due to time and experience.
- I had become very conscious of the importance of health. That’s what a chronic disease diagnosis will do for ya. I take fourteen tablets a day, I go to the hospital every eight weeks for a drug infusion and I regularly take my blood pressure at home. That’s exactly the sort of shit that will make you compare the embarrassment of having someone poke around your cervix, to the consequences of what could happen if you don’t.
- I am way too familiar with this kind of embarrassment. I’ve had two colonoscopies in the last two years, and am destined for many more in my lifetime. Speculums are, like, a few inches long, right? Psssh, nae bother pet.
I should write a TOTM post about why you shouldn’t be one of those statistics.
Because whilst all these things happened to me before my twenty-fifth birthday, there are many women to whom they won’t. (For points 2 and 3, I actively hope they don’t.)
And it’s completely fine to be wincingly embarrassed by the thought of a cervical screening. It’s probably the only sensible reaction, to be honest.
But this is a stone cold fact: a ten-minute, slightly uncomfortable exam in which a health professional (who has probably already seen twelve vaginas today) can check that you are exactly as healthy as you should be – and act on any signs that you aren’t – is worth maxing out your humiliation metre.
And hey, just remind yourself continually that it’s not several feet of metal camera, and it’s not going up your arse.
That’s what I’ll be thinking.