I don’t think anyone admires Winnie the Pooh’s confidence to casually strut around without pants on until they’ve had to do the shuffly, little foxtrot across the doctor’s office for their annual smear (sorry, I know, it’s up there with ‘moist’, isn’t it?).
This edition of my ‘A Guide To’ series is dedicated to Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. I know it brings a deep shame that we’ve skipped our schmear appointments for years but now that I’ve had several of them, I feel obliged to encourage all my womxn readers to go get their bits and boobs checked!
So if you’re feeling a bit insecure, unsure and a smol bag of nerves, fear not! Aunty Bridge is here to tell you all about it and offer some practical-ish advice to help get your appointment sorted. If you’re not a womxn reading this, bravo! Keep these tips in mind for all your cervix-owner friends… wonderful, I’ve made it sound like a Honda.
Read Up on HPV and Cervical Screening
Get informed. If you’re in the UK (or outside for that matter), the NHS is a great resource with lots of starter-pack info about the human papillomavirus (HPV) and what to expect at your cervical screening.
If you’re more stats-inclined, I recommend the World Health Organization’s site for a more in-depth overview.
Basically HPV is super common, and most of us (men, women, everyone) will have (had) HPV at some point in their life and for the most part it’s all grand, BUT, as there’s usually no symptoms, this is why we have to go for our wee checksies to make sure everything is hunky-dory.
Maybe you’ve already had your HPV vaccinations (good stuff, docs are always delighted to hear that), but it’s still important that you book your test.
Registering and Booking Your Test
I’m the youngest of my friends so I’d heard all about the invitation letter when you turn 21 (in Scotland), summoning you for your check up. Of course we all did our best to ignore the existence of HPV and avoid the summons, and given that tampons, periods, pubic hair, masturbation and all things vaginal are massive taboos, I’m not surprised the letter made us all a bit squeamish.
All the info you need to book your test will be in this letter – probably with a hot pink pamphlet for extra reading – but if you, like me, did your best to avoid the letter, you can still reach out to your local GP and proudly demand a test and they’ll get it sorted for you.
If you happen to live near a sexual health clinic, give them a bell too – you might be able to get an appointment quicker, or it might just be more convenient for you.
You should also be mindful to book the test for a non-menstrual day (2 days before or after should be grand).
In Germany, it’s a little different – they have specialist doctors for everything. As a foreigner over here I haven’t received the letter, but conveniently I had to register with a gynaecologist for the pill and part of the new patient registration is the schmear test – it’s much more superior over here. Maybe I should write a comparison?
Ready, Steady, Go
Now that you’ve set a date in your calendar (congrats), and it’s nearing your appointment, the nerves might be creeping in and I’m not surprised. Here are some things I find quite helpful to minimise risk of embarrassment and/or awkwardness and make the occasion less daunting:
- If you’re nervous or worried about any pain or discomfort, talk to the nurse/doctor about it – you can tell them to stop if it doesn’t feel right. They can organise a follow up discussion and find what works for you. Talk to your friends too, talk to yer ma, everyone has different experiences.
- If you’re worried about what it looks like down there, have a look yourself! Get all up in there with a handheld mirror, ring-lights, head-torches, whatever you need, and see what the doctor sees. If you think it needs a new hairdo, some moisturiser, whatever it is… awesome, go attend to it! Remember, the doctor has seen literally all kinds of shapes and sizes before, so whether you’re a tidy box or a ham sandwich, it’s all normal, just you do you! …Lest you eat a ham sandwich ever again.
- Wear your best knickers – or your worst, they’re gonna be off anyway. Although in the event the nurse goes a bit overboard with the lube, you might want to consider an older pair of pants, like your best period pants. You can also just pop to the loo afterwards and tidy up, or bring a bucket and a mop, it’s no biggie.
- Back to clothing, if you don’t fancy that odd draught when you’re Winnie-the-Poohing around the doc’s office with your cute bum hanging out, try opting for a skirt, dress, kilt, or a long T-shirt to keep some modesty.
- And you know, womxn fart, and make other involuntary sounds, that’s also a thing – especially when your legs are akimbo and you’re a bit nervous, it happens! If you’re worried though, maybe go easy on the cheese and beans the day before, be smart – plan ahead. Although for other involuntary sounds, sorry I don’t really have any advice for you there – might as well be confident with it I guess.
Once you’re feeling your best self, chuck on some Lizzo, Cardi or Doja and head off to your appointment with confidence and pride that you’re doing this and looking after yourself. How long have you been putting this off for? Doesn’t matter, you’re doing it now, good for you!
Remember to Breathe
Now, It’s probably strange that when I’m in the big, comfy chair with my legs in the stirrups, I think of Ross Geller…
Aright, hear me out, hear me out. There’s an episode of Friends where Ross and his ex-wife’s partner, Susan, attend a ‘Lamaze Class’ (or anti-natal class) together. Ross is sat on the floor, acting as the mum-to-be, and the teacher says ‘alright, mommies, take a nice, deep, cleansing breath… now, imagine your vagina is opening like a flower’. Pretty sound advice really, it does help.
It’s okay if you’re in the chair/on the bed and still a little nervous. Ask the nurse/doc to explain what happens, what sensations to expect, etc. They’ll also 100% pick up on the fact you’re tense and give you some time to settle and relax – maybe the vajayjay grimaces or something, but they always know. Just take a moment to do your Ross Geller breathing. Try it, thank me later.
So you’ve done it! Your first schmear, proud of you! Now we have to make a good habit out of it and stick to our check ups regularly.
In Germany they recommend booking your check up once a year; the UK currently recommends once every 3-5 years (depending on age). It may be the German in me but I think it’s just good sense to go once a year.
It’s pretty difficult to examine your cervix at home in between check-ups, but you can still look after your breasts as you please! I’m always copping a feel (in the shower, in bed, at work… always). I’m not paranoid or on the constant lookout for lumps or anything; the point of checking your breasts regularly is just to familiarise yourself with them and understand how they should normally look and feel – so if in future there’s a change in shape or texture or maybe that lumpy bit feels more tender, you’ll know when to talk about it to your doctor.
(Plus I just really like my boobs).
Recommending to Others
An important (yet unspoken) part of the check up is making sure others go for theirs too. Leave a review for the practice (yes, really) and tell your friends about it, write a blog, go bananas!
If one of your friends has concerns about it, talk to them, share your experience – or better yet, help them book the appointment. Even if they just want to talk to the doctor/ nurse to find out more, that’s already a huge step and you helped do that!
You might find that despite doing everything right, it just wasn’t a good experience, and that’s unlucky. Don’t lose hope though – if you have a bad hairdresser, you
leave a crap review find a better one and it’s the same with gynaecologists. If you live in Germany and are blessed with bountiful Frauenarzts, you might want to register at a new practice, but if you’re in the UK at your local GP, you could always ask for a different nurse, it’s all good.
[REMINDER] This doesn’t just apply to other womxn and the smear test; remind the men-folks to check themselves regularly and encourage them to book their prostate exam too.
So off you pop, go call up your doctors or book online – your cervix needs you! You are strong, you are confident and you are taking excellent care of yourself!
Once again here is the link to the NHS with all the info you need (if you’re UK based).
If you’re in Germany and looking for a Frauenarzt (gynaecologist), honestly I just went on Maps and searched Frauenarzt nearby – pick one with good reviews though, your body is a temple.