I don't normally do posts like this but as this is also a lifestyle blog and health is a big part of lifestyle, I wanted to have a quick chat with yiz about smear tests.
I've never had any scares or worrying test results so this isn't going to be one of those warning posts but I guess I just wanted to emphasise the importance of what is a very minor, very quick and very easy procedure that in spite of it's anxiety-causing ways can put your mind at ease at the very least and at the very best, save your life.
In Ireland you can get free smear tests from the age of 25, you get sent a letter from the National Cervical screening program (Cervical Check Ireland) inviting you to take up the offer of a free smear test and once you have done so, you're on their system forever and it's free until you're 60. I think that's a pretty brilliant system if I'm honest. For my last smear I will admit I kept putting it off, but not out of fear, purely from never having a convenient time and I received another two follow up letters from them asking me why I still hadn't had my appointment! Alright, pushy! But that's great, it's nice to see a service in this country that's designed purely for the health of women that works efficiently.
A quick note on why the age you start smears is 25; the National Screening program currently don't recommend starting smears before that age.
Because it's a time of continuous cell changes with regards to hormones and sexual activity, you run the risk of getting false positives before the age of 25. In order to prevent you from having unnecessary follow up smears/treatment, it's recommended to wait til you're 25. You can obviously request to have a smear before 25 but you will have to pay for it and you may come up against resistance from your dr or nurse as most research suggests it's a waste of time screening before that age.
It's also important to note that it's recommended that you have a test regardless of your sexuality or if you're not sexually active, as cell changes within the cervix can still occur.
So basically the test itself is looking for changes in the cells of your cervix (neck of the womb). If abnormal cells are picked up early, they're easier to treat. As well as checking your cells in this test, the lab will also see if there's any HPV detected. This stands for Human Papilloma Virus and is found in roughly 80% of the population, so it's very common. It can be passed through sexual contact. There is a strong link between it and cervical cancer so all smear tests now include a screening for HPV. You may have heard of the Gardasil HPV vaccine also, but that's a discussion for another day!
The appointment takes about 15 minutes; you lie on your back, the nurse/dr passes a speculum (plastic medical device to visualise the cervix) through your vagina and takes a small sample of the cells using a little brush (sounds funny, I know) which is then sent off to the lab for testing.
Being perfectly honest, it can be uncomfortable and a bit embarrassing but the best advice is to take a few deep breaths, let all your muscles relax and it'll be over before you know it. Also good advice is to wear a dress and tights, weather permitting. Once you've taken off your tights you won't feel quite as exposed cause you'll still have your dress on..clever, eh?
Speculum, not as bad as you thought!
Then you wait to get your letter in the post with your results, which can take up to 10 weeks. All being well, you won't need another test for three years. Otherwise, if you need follow-up, you'll be contacted by the person who took your smear to discuss further action. Often this can mean that "changes" have been found and these can vary from "low grade", which are minor, can be quite common and can often return to normal on their own but they still require a follow up smear in 6 months time. If there are further changes at that stage you may be referred for a colposcopy (which is a more in depth examination of the cervix).
If "high grade changes" are found on that initial test, you would be referred to a colposcopy clinic straight away.
While that sounds really scary, it's important to remember that the majority of tests come back normal or negative so putting potential worry aside for a minute, this is a simple test that is actually really important and will be over quickly.
Anything you can do to prevent cervical cancer? The good news is, yes, there is!
1) Have regular smear tests.
2) Give up smoking- you may not want to hear it but smoking damages your immune system, increasing your risk of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus, as we discussed earlier!)
3) Don't ignore symptoms like irregular bleeding, spotting or discharge.
4) Get your daughters vaccinated against HPV (in 1st year of secondary school and there's also a catch-up vaccine when they're in 6th year).
You can get more information HERE from Cervical Check Ireland and fellow blogger Laura from My Make Up Perspective made an excellent video on the importance of smear tests HERE which is also well worth a watch.
What about you, do smear tests freak you out a bit? Have you been putting it off or is it just something you get on with?
Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips for anyone who feels a bit anxious about them and how you deal with it.