Cervical cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in young women under the age of 35. The good news is that it’s also one of the most preventable. The bad news? That the thought of the pap smear instills fear in the masses, with many women avoiding it entirely. It’s so important that you make your appointments and stick to them. It takes just a few minutes to complete the test and it allows you to walk away knowing that you’re prioritizing your health. If reading this fills you with dread, fear not! I’ve got 13 tips to make the process that little bit easier.
Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the cervix—that small canal that separates the vagina from the uterus. It’s about an inch long and changes throughout our menstrual cycle, widening and narrowing, raising and lowering depending on what our hormones tell it to do. During ovulation, the cervix softens and opens slightly. It is pulled higher into the pelvis and secretes a special mucus to aid the passage of sperm into the uterus to aid fertility. After ovulation, the cervix closes, becomes firm to touch and lowers into the vagina. For women who practice the Fertility Awareness Method to either aid or avoid pregnancy, regularly feeling the cervix and monitoring secretions are an important part of knowing what the body is doing throughout the month.
The cervical screen or “Pap” test is named after Dr. Georgious Papanicolaou who invented the test in the early 1900’s as a means of detecting cancer in its early stages. It is recommended to women over 21 in the US and 25 in the UK, or at any time once sexually active. This is because of sexually-transmitted Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that can lead to precancerous lesions on areas like the cervix (though also the vulva and vagina), increasing the risk of cancerous growth.
There is no treatment for HPV, though there is a vaccine available to help prevent the strains most likely to cause cancer. This is often administered to young women as a method of prevention. Many of us will contract the virus in one form or another during our lifetime and it often lies dormant with no symptoms, cleared from the body after about 2 years. However, if you get a Pap smear during this time and evidence of the virus is detected, you will likely be asked to return for a screening annually until it has cleared (rather than every few years).
In case you’ve never been for a Pap smear, here’s the lowdown on what you can expect. The whole appointment takes takes less than 10 minutes, with the procedure itself less than 5. (I think the record it took a nurse to do one of mine was about 2 minutes!) After a few routine questions, you’ll be given a moment of privacy to undress from the waist down, lie back on a bed and cover your ladybits with a sheet. The nurse will come in and ask you to bend your knees, and then let them relax open with your feet together or on stirrups. Using a small amount of lubricant, she’ll insert a speculum and gently open this to visualize the cervix. In goes a soft swab which swipes a few cells from the cervix, then out it all comes and the nurse gives you some privacy once again to wipe off the excess lubricant and get dressed.
The procedure should never feel painful, but it will feel a little weird and at worst uncomfortable. It comes down to the brain trying to process why a person you don’t know is adding lubricant to a device they’re going to insert into your vagina under a clinical setting without you really wanting them to! Plus, the lube and speculum can feel a little cold and the swabbing will be an unfamiliar sensation. But overall it’s fine and I promise that once you’ve got your first one out the way, you’ll realize that it was a way bigger deal in your head. Most times you’ll forget you even had the procedure as soon as you step out of the practice and get on with your day, but sometimes you might experience a little bit of spotting or light bleeding, so bear that in mind in case you want to carry some supplies with you.
It’s worth mentioning that some of us attach a lot more anxiety to Pap smears than others. Namely, sexual assault victims. Understandably, it causes a lot of psychological torment for women who know that they should be going in for the procedure (especially because HPV is a sexually-transmitted disease) but are unable to bring themselves to do so. It is for you that I write this.
Whether you’re a victim of sexual assault or just really nervous about the procedure, I’ve got 13 tips that I know will help you make it through:
Wear a skirt or dress – There’s something about this that feels way less awkward than having to take off your pants. Try it and you’ll see what I mean!
Try Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique – A game-changer if you’ve never experienced it before, try this while you’re getting yourself ready and during the procedure.
Superwoman pose – A go-to for making you feel like you’ve got this, take yourself to the restroom before your appointment and while in your cubicle, stand tall with feet hip width apart, shoulders back and hands on your waist. Hold the pose for 2 minutes and feel the fear slip away.
Thinking about your timing – Don’t schedule the appointment on the morning of a busy day if you’ll be panicking about taking too long. Instead, try making it at the end of the day or day off. Remove the pressure.
Take moral support – Even if he or she doesn’t come into the room with you, having a friend to cheer you on can make all the difference.
Ask for a female – While I’ve only ever had female nurses myself, there are plenty of males out there. Don’t be afraid to inquire beforehand if you have a female and ask to change if it would make you more comfortable.
Know your anatomy – Unlike men, most women are really detached from knowing their sexual anatomy. Whether it’s taking a hand mirror to see what things actually look like down there, or inserting a finger throughout the month (as I mentioned earlier) and feeling for the changes, it can be tremendously empowering getting more comfortable with knowing what’s what.
Encourage laughter – When we’re nervous, we tighten up. Try talking to your nurse about something funny to help you relax.
Sing your heart out – Another one to help relax the muscles; if it makes you feel better, you go ahead girl and give it your all!
Headphones on – Your nurse will not be offended at all if you ask to pop your headphones on and listen to your favorite feel-good tune or podcast to help distract yourself while she pokes away.
Ask for a smaller speculum – They do exist! If you’re really nervous, don’t ever feel bad about requesting the nurse reach for a smaller speculum before starting the procedure.
Change position – If the standard knees-apart thing isn’t working for you, ask if you can change position. Some women find the process easier on their sides with knees hugged into the chest.
Treat yourself – Whether it’s a smoothie from your favorite café or a new perfume, use the opportunity to treat yourself to something that makes it all feel worth it.
What are your favorite tips for making your Pap smear appointment run more smoothly?
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