Every three years a letter drops through the door.
It’s from the NHS and it reminds me that it’s time for a smear test – this year I had to wait a month for an available appointment, as the nurse is pretty busy. I have lost count of the number of tests I’ve had over the years but I never miss them. These days they won’t give you a smear till you’re 25, but back then you were advised to get one a year after becoming sexually active. Seems silly to me as HPV and cancer don’t wait but there we are.
In my early twenties, a routine test showed abnormal cells so I had to go back in six months for another. By then there were a lot of those abnormal little cells and they were aggressive little beasts, it turned out. What followed was colposcopy, a loop biopsy and laser cauterisation (what’s that smell of burning? Why, it’s me!). Six monthly tests for the next few years, followed by annual tests for several more, and then when I was given the all clear it was back to three yearly. Had I not had that smear test, those abnormal cells would have escalated into cervical cancer – that’s the one that killed Jade Goody at 27, leaving two small boys growing up without a mum.
About half a million extra smear tests were done between mid-2008 when Goody was diagnosed and mid-2009 when she died, many for women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (source). Called ‘The Jade Goody Effect’, it didn’t last and in 2018 smear testing hit a 20-year low – the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2008 for 12-13 year old girls (and boys) is making women complacent. The vaccine, given in two doses while girls are at school, helps protect against invasive cervical cancer as well as pre-cancerous cell changes. Covid-19 has increased ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and disrupted vaccination programmes but hopefully they’ll be getting back up to speed soon: Thing 2 should have her first jab this year and Thing 1 her second. Thing 3 will also be offered it as a boy in England and I’ll be making sure he gets it, as it prevents all sorts of other cancers in men as well as women. I had HPV: it caused the cell changes and like other viruses it lurks in the body and can come back. It’s often symptomless, so I had no idea until I was part of a study later on. As I started to write this blog the radio news broadcast told me that cervical cancer rates are 87% lower in women who have had the HPV vaccine. There’s lots of helpful, sensible information on cervical cancer, smear tests, the vaccine and more here.
Smear tests are not fun. They can be uncomfortable. They’re undignified. Some strange person rummaging around ‘down there’ is never going to be the most fun five minutes of your life – but it is only five minutes, and then hopefully you’re done with it for another few years. If they catch a few cells misbehaving, then they can deal with them quickly – but if you don’t go, they won’t find them. They’ll offer you a chaperone if you want one, and a sheet to cover yourself with. My top tip is to wear something with a skirt, but believe me: those nurses have seen pretty much everything over the years and whatever you’ve got going on its all in a day’s work to them. You can also be glad of plastic speculums, because the metal ones were horrible even if you had a nice nurse who warmed it up under the hot tap.
I make jokes to relax, and chat to the nurse – this year the fact that I had to wear a mask during the test made me laugh, it seemed so ridiculous. If you’re worried, take your mum. Take your sister. Take a friend – hell, take two or three, make consecutive appointments and go for cocktails afterwards to reward yourselves for being both sensible and brave. You can go to your GP surgery or your local sexual health clinic, they’re free here in the UK and those five minutes might quite literally save your life. You don’t get a lollipop or a sticker afterwards (maybe we should start a campaign?) but you do get a letter in the post a few weeks later with your results.
However and wherever you do it – just do it, and keep doing it whenever they remind you. It’s worth it, I promise.
September, October and November are busy months for birthdays – especially when you’re still working remotely! I’ve been late with a few and some have been late collecting their presents but I’m all caught up now and there’s no more birthdays till next year! Secret Santa and a leaving gift are next up, followed by Christmas.
I also made a Totoro amigurumi, which has led to another one – as long as it doesn’t turn into the tinycorn plague all over again (27 of them…) it’ll be fine.
And this week I am gearing up for Museum Takeover Day – in the absence of a museum, we’re doing it inside out and taking over our local primary school. I keep telling myself it’s going to be all right on the night…otherwise I’m going to go full Macauley Culkin in Home Alone…
See you on the flipside! Mine will be a large G&T.
What I’ve been reading
Dreams Underfoot/Tapping the Dream Tree/Muse and Reverie – Charles de Lint
Windswept and Interesting – Billy Connolly (Audible)