Monday, 22 January 2018

Don't Risk Dying of Embarrassment...

Today, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust revealed that in a recent study, a third of women had admitted to avoiding having a regular smear test.  Concerns about body shape, appearance of genitals/pubic region and smells topped the list of reasons why women were putting off having the test.

Whilst this news is undoubtedly troubling - cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35 - I found it depressingly unsurprising.

Despite all the massive progress feminism has made in recent years, and in spite of the empowering #metoo movement, too many women still feel pressured into trying to conform to the media's "rules" about how we should look and behave.  When we live in a world in which glossy magazines gleefully publish photos of celebrities with cellulite on show, as though it's a crime worthy of being called out in the most public way possible, it's no great shock to discover that many women still have huge problems accepting their body shape and don't want to feel vulnerable, even in front of a medical professional.

Delaying or putting off your smear test all together can have serious consequences.  I know several women who've had pre-cancerous cells picked up during a routine smear test.  Having those cells monitored - and having additional procedures where necessary - has almost certainly prevented those women from developing a disease that can be fatal.

In 2009, the death of reality TV star Jade Goody at the age of just 27, triggered an upturn in the number of women ensuring they attended their regular smear tests.  Cervical cancer was talked about openly and the government discussed bringing the age of initial smear tests for women in England down from 25 (sadly, 25 remains the age at which most women begin having regular tests).

In the years since, however, the number of women regularly attending their smear tests has decreased once more and I find that horribly frightening.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common fatal cancer in women.  It can lie undiscovered, with very few obvious symptoms.  Cervical cancer has the capacity to spread and to do so rapidly.  Avoiding it with a regular smear test sounds like an obvious thing to want to do, yet we find ourselves in a situation where women are actively risking their health by not attending check ups.  In fact, despite women under 35 being the most at risk of this form of cancer, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust discovered that 61% of the women they surveyed had no idea that they fell into the age bracket most likely to contract the disease.

Are we really going to risk dying of embarrassment?!

The nurses who carry out smear tests have seen it all before, ladies, I promise.  They don't care whether you're waxed to within an inch of your life, or whether you're carrying enough fluff down there to stuff a cushion.  

It doesn't matter whether you've got wobbly thighs, or if you're not wearing your best knickers, that day.  

All the worries you have about shape, size, odour and neatness are trivial in comparison to the much bigger worries caused by discovering cancer much too late.

And it doesn't really hurt.  At least not anywhere near as much as you might be imagining.  It's not 100% comfortable, I grant you, but I've had far worse medical procedures in my lifetime.  I've had a lumbar puncture.  Believe me, a smear test is a picnic in the park, in comparison to that.  Just try to relax as much as possible (nerves won't help the situation, to be fair).

You'll also find that nurses, doctors and other medical professionals are really understanding about the reasons you might have for feeling scared about stripping off for an intimate procedure.  They'll take the time to put you at ease.  And if you have a really serious reason for being afraid - someone on Twitter earlier suggested that survivors of rape or sexual assault could have obvious problems with having an invasive, intimate procedure - talk those concerns through.  You will be taken seriously by any decent medical professional.  

At the end of the day, if what's stopping you from having a potentially life-saving, five minute check up is embarrassment, then to quote the song from Frozen, we all need to let it go.

I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but your vagina is not going to be the one that makes a nurse leap from her chair, throwing the speculum across the room in horror.  It's just not that special.  Whoever does your smear test will have seen (and, if you're worried about it, probably smelled) hundreds of female genitals before and, when they see you on the bed, they genuinely won't care whether you've got a bit of perfectly normal cellulite, or whether you have the enviable thighs and bum of a toned Goddess.  All they want to do is get the test done and ascertain whether you're healthy, or whether there might be a risk.  That's it.  They're really not going to comment on your downstairs topiary.

It's five minutes of your life - even if it is five minutes of embarrassment - to potentially save the rest of it.   So, when that letter arrives, ladies: PLEASE don't ignore it.


  1. I've never heard of this kind of test before, but then again procedures in my country to check for the disease are probably different. I don't care how uncomfortable or embarrassing any medical procedure may be, I would rather be healthy and assured that I don't have some disease that could be fatal, than delay because of "humiliation" of someone examining me for medical purposes.

  2. Absolutely. It's not the most comfortable of procedures and I get slightly nervous about being naked from the waist down, even in front of a doctor, but you're covered with a sheet so it's not like it's undignified and it's a few minutes out of your life, to potentially save you from something horrendous. Pretty good trade off, if you ask me!


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