The ‘C’ Word
All women between the ages of 25 and 65 are invited for a smear test. If you’re between 25 and 49 this happens every 3 years. Thereafter you should receive an invite every 5 years. For most this is like receiving an invite to a party that you really don’t want to go to whilst knowing that you really should make an appearance. It is 1 year since I received my letter. Still troubled by memories of excess interference during pregnancy and childbirth I put the letter to one side feeling that my genitals had had a few too many showings already that year. Not wishing to trouble them further I put the letter safely aside and there it sat… and sat… Then a friend of mine called and spoke the words that all we women fear, “I’ve had an abnormal smear”. Even after that I still allowed 6 months to elapse before I went for my test. I should have known better but at least I responded to my wake up call eventually.
Cervical Smear Tests
The dreaded request
What happens down below when the doctor or nurse asks you to ‘put your heels together and flop your knees outwards’. They have a look at the neck of the womb (cervix). They then collect a sample of cells from the surface and place it onto a glass slide which will later be inspected under the microscope.
The dreaded tools
Under the circumstances of course it can be difficult to relax. Like most investigative implements a speculum does not look very appealing and more closely resembles an instrument of torture. However, it simply has the innocent job of gently widening the vaginal space to enable the user to see the cervix. So do not fear.
The dreaded ‘C’ word
Why should you a have a smear test regularly? A smear test is used to spot abnormalities or changes in the cervix. For the unfortunate few, if left unchecked, abnormalities may progress to cancer. In the UK nearly 50% of new cases of cervical cancer occur in those who have never had a smear test. The test isn’t perfect but it’s the best we’ve got. God knows it’s not the most dignified position but don’t let bashfulness or fear stop you from attending.
You need to be on this lifesaving roll call so make sure that you’re registered with a GP and if you move don’t forget to update the surgery with your new contact details.
Another dreaded ‘C’ word
Sex and babies; when the two don’t necessarily go together.
Not all sexually transmitted infections have symptoms. Chlamydia is one word that all sexually active women should fear. It can silently rob you of your fertility. We’ve gone from STDs to STIs but I’m not sure that the change in nomenclature has done anything to dispel the taboos and stigma. Sexually transmitted diseases/sexually transmitted infections, whatever you want to call them, they do damage. So if you have cause for concern get yourself checked out. It’s not always easy to identify whether or not you’re at risk. I don’t mean to be cynical but monogamy is not a one way street. Do you know what bed bugs your partner is bringing home because if he’s sleeping with someone else you’re sleeping with them too. If in doubt get checked out.
Sexual health clinics, otherwise known as genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics, are open to everyone and they’re free. They’ll advise you, test you, treat you and offer you Confidentiality (there’s a nice ‘C’ word for you), and they’ll even toss in a few free condoms. There you go, it’s not all bad.
What to expect
Be prepared to bare all but don’t fear, they’ve heard it all before. You can expect an internal examination and they will take samples which is a little bit like having a smear test.
As a woman, unless you’re a perfect size 10 it can be hard to look at yourself in the mirror naked, viewing lumps and bumps in all the wrong places. I’m not here to give you a lesson in self-esteem… I’ll leave that to Oprah and Tyra but there are a few lumps that you should not be hiding from. Quite the contrary, you should be actively seeking them out. Breast cancer, as with any other illness, leaves no room for vanity. More on that next month but here’s a word or two to help ease you into the vital routine of breast self-examination.
Many women find that it helps to examine their breasts in the bath or under the shower when the skin is wet but it is also important to look at yourself and know yourself. To coin a phrase, be ‘breast aware’.
It’s not all lumps lumps lumps
Your breasts are unique. They’re not going to look or feel like your friend’s, your colleague’s or the woman next doors. Much is said of lumps but in some cases lumpy breasts are normal. You’re not just looking for lumps you’re looking for change. Don’t get me wrong, lumps are important but I sometimes get the idea that women feel that that’s all they should be focussing on. Certainly every televised fictional drama based around this topic seems to focus around some woman detecting a lump. I suppose it’s more dramatic than a patient visiting her GP saying, “I’ve got a bit of a rash on my nipple” or “I’ve got a bit of a pain in my armpit”.
If you find a lump it doesn’t always spell bad news. 80% of breast cancers occur in women over 50. That’s why, in this country, it’s the women between 50 and 70 who are routinely called for a mammogram (breast x-ray) every 3 years. I’m assured that having your breast squeezed between two rigid Perspex plates is not the most comfortable thing in the world but it won’t kill you. On the other hand cancer can. I myself have been guilty of feeling about in a half-arsed way and after breast feeding I fear I may have become worse. After having a sumo-like child tugging on my nipple for the best part of a year I feel that area has suffered enough abuse but this is too important a task to be lackadaisical about. If you want to learn true ‘breast awareness’ tune in next month.