Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional – just a person who has researched this subject a little and wanted to share my story. If you have any medical questions or concerns, please link in with an appropriately qualified practitioner.
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who enjoys going for smear tests (or, cervical screening tests, as they’re often called). In this post, I don’t want to BS anyone (to put it politely). In all honesty, before going to my appointment, I was petrified. I already suffer from health anxiety so this was something I genuinely found extremely frightening and almost as if I was doing something wrong by ‘looking for problems’. But the thing is, in my partner’s words, just because you ignore the invitation to attend, that doesn’t mean any issues that need attention don’t exist. Attending smear tests is important so I wanted to share exactly what went on during mine, with no filter.
In this post:
Why I’m talking about this subject
Unfortunately, before my test, I only saw the bare minimum of ‘real-life’ experiences on the test itself with most pieces of content being overly medical. This only served to make me more nervous. The other things I saw seemed to brush off any concerns by only talking about ‘embarrassment’ or ‘just getting over it’ as opposed to any other genuine feelings people might have. For me, it was never the thought of someone seeing me undressed that was the issue, it was the fear of the unknown. I also felt mildly insulted that some sources insisted that women should just ‘grow up’ and get on with it instead of actually supporting others through their worries.
I did watch one video from Zoe Sugg however. This made me feel considerably better and inspired me to write about my own experiences here in the hope of putting other’s minds at ease as well as demystifying the entire experience for first-time attendees.
How smear tests work in Wales, UK
Here in Wales, you are called to attend every 3 years (in ‘normal’ circumstances) from age 25. They also operate what I learned is called a ‘HPV primary screening’ process in Wales. This means they test samples for HPV (human papillomavirus) in the first instance then, if that comes back positive, they use the same sample to check for any abnormal cell changes (and call you back for further testing if this shows something). If the initial check is HPV negative, they don’t check the cells as the risk of developing issues without HPV is low.
If you would like to learn more about the cervical screening process, check this website – I found it really informative.
Booking the appointment
I received my invitation slightly later than what someone normally would due to COVID. My letter came in early January with my 25th birthday coming up at the end of that month – the usual is to receive a letter when you turn 24 and a half. To book, I rang my GP surgery and they scheduled me in with a nurse. Due to my anxiety, I chose the first appointment of the day (so I wouldn’t be thinking about it all day) and ensured it was for a time I would not be on my period. Personally, I chose to go when I knew I would be ovulating as I’ve heard from others that this makes the process more comfortable/easier.
Preparing for my smear test and what I took with me
To prepare for my smear test, I did the following:
- Arranged a lift to and from the test so I didn’t have to worry about the parking situation at my doctors’ surgery (it can get really busy and stressful!)
- Chose what clothes I thought were best to wear the night before (a skirt or dress is good as it can provide more coverage during the test – as it’s winter, I went for leggings underneath as they’re easy to slip out of).
- Ensured I was clean and feeling confident on the day of the test (for me, this meant just taking a shower as normal. Also, just in case anyone needs to hear it again, medical professionals honestly don’t care how you style yourself downstairs – you can shave, or not, it’s your choice!
I took a few things with me to the test which I thought would be useful to mention:
- Details of my last period
- Any questions I had
- A pantyliner in case I experienced spotting after the test
- Something to keep me calm (For me, this was using my prescribed anxiety medication, for others, it may be something like Rescue Remedy or bringing a supportive friend). Naturally, this point won’t apply to everyone but I wanted to put it down anyway.
On the day of the smear test
I was called into the nurse’s room – a large room with an area for talking as well as a screen and examination couch. Donna* told me to take a seat in the consultation area of the room while we went over some details. She asked whether I was currently using any hormonal medication (such as contraceptives), whether I smoked and whether I had noticed any unusual symptoms such as bleeding or discharge. She also asked when my last period was and whether I regularly did self-breast exams. By this point, my anxiety levels had dropped considerably and I felt so much more at ease due to Donna’s friendly yet professional attitude.
After she had taken down the notes needed for my file, Donna took me over to the examination couch and asked me to undress from the waist down behind the screen while she went away to the other side of the room to prepare what she needed.
Once I was ready, I got comfortable on the examination couch and covered my pelvis, partly with my dress and partly with the paper provided for me. At this point, I let Donna know I was ready too.
If you don’t wish to hear details of the test itself, please skip to the next set of stars.
The examination couch in the room during my appointment did not have any kind of stirrups or leg rests so Donna instructed me to put my heels to my bottom and let my legs flop open to the sides. Before touching me in any way, she let me know that she was about to insert the speculum and that I could tell her to stop at any time if I needed to.
Inserting the speculum felt unusual but not at all painful. A small amount of lube was used so there was no friction. Once it was in, I felt a small pushing sensation as the speculum was opened. In all honesty, I didn’t notice as Donna began to use the sample brush on me. I heard a clicking noise as the plastic brush handle hit the sides of the speculum but I think I assumed it was still her just adjusting the mechanism that holds it open. The brushing part continued for what I imagined to be around 30 seconds. Towards the end of this time, I felt a pushing sensation, not dissimilar to if you’ve ever inserted a tampon too deeply when pressing it out of its applicator. Again, not painful, just a sensation. Once she had collected the sample, she quickly withdrew the brush and speculum, allowing me to put my legs down. For some reason, I had gotten it into my mind that the time immediately following the test would be incredibly awkward, but Donna was too busy intensely bashing my cells off the brush and into the sample pot’s liquid on a table at the end of the couch. In other words, she had very little interest in me just lying there. Once she had finished, she left the screened-off area to allow me to get dressed.
When I was ready, I came out from behind the screen and approached the consultation area. Donna informed me that we were all done and showed me out after informing me that the results would be sent to me via letter in around 4-6 weeks. As I left, all I could think was how easy the entire appointment had been. It felt like I had barely been there five minutes (I was in the nurse’s room a total of 20 minutes). Donna had been chatting away with me throughout too which really helped to take my mind off everything and put me completely at ease.
After the appointment, what my smear test results mean, how long the results took to come back
Lots of sources say its really common to experience spotting or light bleeding after a smear test. Personally, I only experienced a tiny amount – barely noticeable and definitely not anything that would require a liner as it was so insignificant. I had no other after-effects but did schedule in some extra self-care activities that day just for good measure (hot bath that evening and favourite foods on hand). From a charting point of view, I ovulated at the ‘average’ time and the cycle progressed as normal.
I received my results letter just 2 weeks after the test stating a ‘normal’ result and that I would be expected back in 3 years time. This means that on this occasion, HPV was not detected in my sample so there was no need to go on to check my cells for changes.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the health professional who worked with me
To tie things up, I just wanted to say that I’m a huge believer in attending routine check-ups when required so it was important for me to put my experience into words just in case it was useful to someone. If anyone has any questions about anything I’ve mentioned here, please comment below!