This is quite a personal post and not something I’d usually feature on my blog, but I thought it was worth writing. Last summer I received a letter stating that the results from my most recent cervical screening were abnormal. Naturally I was super concerned and turned to the internet for a little more guidance (for once in my life, Dr. Google was my friend!). Reading about other people’s experiences really helped and reassured me; so today I wanted to talk about my own.
What is a smear test?
As I’m sure you’re all aware, a smear test is a cervical health screening that women are invited to attend around their 25th birthday, and then every 3 years from then. I had my first letter back in 2016 – I remember being particularly worried as I’d been on the contraceptive pill for around 9 years, which can increase the risk of cervical cancer. After reading various horror stories online and convincing myself I had all the symptoms (as you do) I’d gotten myself more worked up than ever and was eager to be tested ASAP.
I don’t remember much from my first smear – it was pretty uneventful! I do recall feeling very strange at first as I’d never been examined ‘down there’ medically before. I just kept telling myself that doctors and nurses see hundreds of vaginas every day – they’re not fazed by it!
During the appointment, the nurse/doctor inserts a speculum (a smooth, beak shaped instrument) into your vagina. They’ll then gently open it up to inspect your cervix, before using a small brush to take a sample of your cells. Don’t worry – this sounds so much scarier and more complicated than it actually is!
Both smear tests I’ve attended have not been painful at all – just a little uncomfortable (similar to a period cramp, in fact). After both appointments I felt just fine and was able to continue with my day as normal.
A few weeks after my first appointment I received a letter from my surgery informing me that everything was normal. As you can imagine, I breathed a sigh of relief! When the invitation for my second smear arrived last Spring, I felt pretty nonchalant. I went along to my screening and gave the results little thought; expecting them to be the same as they had been the first time.
When the results arrived a month or so later, I noticed the envelope was much thicker than my first one had been which straight away made me feel as if something was wrong. The letter stated that my most recent test had detected abnormal cells. I remember immediately assuming the worst and working myself into a frenzy, the ‘C’ word flashing in my head. After a cup of tea and some reassuring words from my mom, I took the time to read my letter and it’s accompanying booklet properly and managed to calm myself. I also consulted Dr. Google and like I mentioned at the beginning of the post, for once it made me feel better rather than worse!
From the Cancer Research website:
An abnormal cervical screening test result means that you have changes in the cells covering the neck of your womb (cervix). These changes are not cancer. The cells often go back to normal by themselves. But in some women, if not treated, these changes could develop into cancer in the future.
Your screening result may say you have:
– Borderline or mild cell changes (also called low grade dyskaryosis)
– Moderate or severe cell changes (also called high grade dyskaryosis)
My letter stated I had moderate cell changes (high grade dyskaryosis) and I was invited to a colposcopy appointment at my local hospital.
I’d never heard of a colposcopy before and wasn’t sure what it would entail until I read my booklet. It’s not too dissimilar from a smear test – the doctor takes a closer look at your cervix and may take samples to send away for further testing.
I arrived at the hospital for my appointment and was talked through the process by a lovely nurse. I was then asked to change out of my clothes and into a gown before waiting to be called into the colposcopy room.
From the Cancer Research website:
A colposcopy is a test to have a look at the cervix in detail. A colposcope is a large magnifying glass that a doctor or specialist nurse (colposcopist) uses to closely look at the skin-like covering of the cervix. By looking through it, the colposcopist can see changes that may be too small to see with the naked eye. They can take samples (biopsies) of any abnormal areas on the cervix.
The procedure was a little nerve-wracking although it only lasted around 10-15 minutes. The worst thing about it all is the TV which is linked to a camera attached to the colposcope – meaning your cervix is live on screen! Interesting but pretty gross at the same time – you can ask them to turn the TV away from you if you wish.
The doctor told me he was going to perform what’s called a ‘punch biopsy’ (taking a small piece of tissue from the cervix). This was pretty unpleasant, I’m not going to lie – however, it only takes a second and is no more painful than having your eyebrows threaded. I think it just took me by surprise!
After the procedure, I got dressed and spoke to the nurses a little before leaving. As the appointment had been so last minute, I’d had to take the day off work to attend. However, I felt fine in myself (minus a little bit of cramping) and ended up going into work anyway.
A few weeks after my appointment, I received a letter inviting me to another colposcopy in 6 months. The doctor stated that he wanted to see if my cells returned to normal on their own in that time.
So, back in December I went back to the hospital for a second colposcopy. This time my sister came with me and we booked to have dinner after so I had something to look forward to! However, it turned out to be more like a routine smear test and no biopsies were taken.
Several weeks after my second colposcopy, I received a letter inviting me to a third. My cells had showed signs of change again. Around this time I started to feel concerned as everything was up in the air with Covid-19 – my appointment was postponed but they managed to fit me in at the beginning of this month. The colposcopy started just as my other two had – the doctor assured me that everything looked good and the changes they’d detected had again been moderate. He then asked if I’d like another biopsy or if I wanted the cells removed altogether, then and there. I opted for the latter, despite feeling nervous as I hadn’t prepared myself for treatment! However, the thought of the cells being gone and the fact I’d no longer have to worry about them comforted me massively. The doctor explained that he was going to carry out LLETZ (large loop excision of the transformation zone). Basically, a thin wire loop is heated with an electric current and then used to remove the abnormal cells. Again, this sounds way scarier than it is! Although LLETZ is a little uncomfortable, I didn’t find it painful. In my opinion the punch biopsy was worse.
From the Cancer Research website:
LLETZ stands for large loop excision of the transformation zone. It’s also known as loop electrosurgical excision (LEEP) or loop diathermy. This is the most common treatment for abnormal cervical cells.
Your colposcopist uses a thin wire loop to remove the transformation zone of the cervix. The wire has an electrical current running through it, which cuts the tissue and seals the wound at the same time.
The transformation zone is the area around the opening of the cervix.
Your colposcopist gently puts a medical instrument called a speculum into your vagina to hold it open (like when you have a cervical screening test). They look through the colposcope to examine your cervix.
They inject some local anaesthetic into your cervix. This might sting for a short time. The local anaesthetic numbs the area. Your colposcopist can then remove the area of tissue with the abnormal cells. This is not painful but you may feel some pressure.
Although the procedure itself hadn’t been particularly troublesome, I must admit I felt pretty crap after. As I sat up on the examination couch, I felt a wave of nausea go through me and for a minute I thought I was going to throw up all over the floor (luckily I didn’t!) Once I got dressed I sat down with a glass of water and chatted to the nurse. She advised me not to have sex or use tampons for at least 4 weeks to prevent the risk of infection. She also spoke about side effects and said if I had any heavy bleeding or persistent stomach aches to contact my GP.
Due to the virus I obviously wasn’t allowed anyone to accompany me to my appointment, so I’d gone alone. On my way out I walked past the newsagents and treated myself to a boatload of snacks. I’d been promising myself I’d try and start eating better but I remember thinking ‘b*llocks to it’ at this point- all I wanted was chocolate!
The rest of the day was a bit of a write-off for me. It’s a good job I’ve been furloughed because I don’t think I could have faced going back to work. I had the worst cramps ever – similar to a bad period pain. For the next 24 hours I stayed in bed, napping and watching Netflix with a hot water bottle pressed to my stomach. The next day my cramps were pretty bad still, but after that they subsided.
I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve not really had any side effects; for the first week or so I felt a bit sore and gross but I was soon back to my normal self. I’d forgotten to ask the nurse if I was able to exercise, as I’d read somewhere that it’s not advisable after LLETZ. After a quick Google I decided to give it a few weeks as not to disturb the healing process. I’ve still been going on my daily walks but I really miss my running!
A few days ago I received the results from my treatment. Turns out the tissue I had removed showed evidence of a pre-cancerous change (CIN3), although to quote the letter exactly; nothing more abnormal than this. I’ve now been discharged back to my GP and am to attend a smear test in 6 months time.
So, for now I can relax and hope that my next screening goes smoothly! The whole experience has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster but it’s taught me to never take my health for granted. I’m so glad I went for my smear test when I did – it’s so terrifying to think what could have happened if I’d ignored the invitation.
I hope this post has been helpful and has put your mind at ease, whether you’re awaiting an invite to your first cervical screening, have received an abnormal result or are booked in for a colposcopy/treatment. It may even be a reminder to some of you to arrange an appointment. I’ve heard so many girls say they’re scared to book their smear because they’re scared it’ll hurt or, like I was, they’re concerned about the results, but please, don’t put it off. I know it’s not pleasant and serves as a different experience for everyone, but it’s definitely not worth missing – it could save your life!
I know it’s quite a personal topic but it’s something very close to my heart, so if anyone wants to ask any questions or simply have a chat, please feel free to email me. Alternatively, if you’d like to read more information you can visit the NHS page on cervical screening here.
All my love xx