When you reach your 100th birthday, you can expect a letter from the Queen. When you reach your first quarter century, you can expect a letter from the NHS about cervical screening, inviting you to book #yourfirstsmear and usually every 3 years after that.
Fab, let’s party. Pass the speculum.
But whether it’s your first or your fifth, if your cervical smear test’s due and you haven’t been, you’re not alone. According to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, 1 in 4 people don’t attend theirs. At SH:24, we did our own quick and dirty Twitter poll for Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and found 43% of you were either overdue for your smear or didn’t know if you were.
So if it’s time for #yourfirstsmear, what’s stopping you? And what about those of us seasoned smearers who aren’t booking ourselves in when it’s due?
Jo’s Trust attributes low attendance to embarrassment (a third of the 2,017 women surveyed) and around one in six (16%) would rather miss their potentially life-saving test than a gym class or a waxing appointment.
I’ll put my hand up to being a serial late smear goer. I’ve had several and while I’m no longer daunted by the process (waaay worse things can go on down there and personally, I’d choose a smear over a bikini wax any day of the week), for me, it’s a scheduling issue.
First, the NHS advises you to book the appointment for when you don’t have your period, so that’s one week of the month out of the question. Then for the other three, there’s fitting it around work (which is nowhere near my GP) and I can’t be the only person for whom arranging childcare is an issue. It’s simply not practical for me to be accompanied by my 1 year-old, singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm to keep him happy while I’m in a legs-akimbo situation.
It turns out, I’m not alone in being late to the smear party.
I conducted my own, totally unscientific straw poll of a handful of my thirty-something girlfriends. Every single one of them confessed that, like me, they were overdue for their smear tests and had not responded to a reminder letter.
So what is a group of otherwise sensible, rational and educated women doing delaying a potentially life-saving and harmless check-up? The reasons for tardiness were more eye-opening than leg-opening:
‘I got my reminder letter before Christmas,’ says Sam. ‘It’s easy to schedule through my GP but it’s as bad as any other time you need to go to the doctor’s as they're only open when I have to be at work.’
‘It’s not something we talk about, like it’s a taboo subject,’ says another. ‘I was put off my first smear by a friend telling me how painful it was.’
‘It's painful for me, and all too often they don't get enough cells, so I have to go through it all twice,’ says Lorna. ‘I learned pretty early on to just insert that speculum myself. Far easier than having a nurse jab you seven ways to Sunday and thinking "that's not my angle!"’
‘I actually don't care about the process at all,’ adds Andi. ‘I find a bikini wax or dental work far more unpleasant. I can also never remember when I last had one so I never know when to chase. I don't trust the NHS to remember to invite me.’
If you’re registered with a GP, you’ll be invited by post to make an appointment every 3 years if you’re 25-49 and every 5 years if you’re 60-64. In fact, women under 25 could be invited up to 6 months before their 25th birthday. You can book your screening appointment as soon as you get the invitation.
Feels to me like we need to talk about it more, support each other, and don’t be afraid to ask for help with any of those barriers to going.
We asked you to share your top tips for #yourfirstsmear
“My advice would be that you can ask for a different sized speculum if it’s painful or uncomfortable”
‘My first smear, I asked the nurse what she was going to do because I had no idea. So she told me. And talked to me the whole time she was going through the process. It made me feel much more relaxed!’
‘Don’t let them turn you away for being lesbian or bisexual, you still need a smear’.
‘They assume that no woman has ever been subjected to rape or sexual violence, so ask if they have had that training and then refuse if they haven’t.’
‘It’s easier said than done but relax, it makes the whole process easier for you! It’s so quick and easy. Lie back, think about a sunny beach sipping on a pina colada!’
Find out about cervical screening and smear tests on our website.