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Smear Campaign

close up of microscope
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Right listen here you women under thirty. And, I address Welsh women under thirty in particular. Headline in the news yesterday is that up to a third of you are not going to your cervical screening tests. This is not good news. Not good news at all. What’s that all about? I want to have a stern and matronly word about what might be bothering you.

The Nickname

Yes, it is awful.  Named because the cells to be examined are smeared across a slide before being placed under the microscope.  I am not a scientist but some of you are – I would expect that a number of things that are put under a microscope for examination are smeared across a slide first.  Am I right?  I have absolutely no idea why it has become common parlance for an important scientific test that can save a woman’s life. It’s almost as if they were trying to put us off. I can only assume that the word ‘smear’ was attached to it by someone who didn’t like women very much – the common and everyday sort of misogynistic language that is very slowly being eradicated. A bit like ‘mankind’ or women getting wrinkles, but men getting ‘fatigued’ – that sort of crap. It’s proper name is cervical screening, for that is what it is: screening your cervix for abnormal cells so that those cells can be quickly and easily dealt with before they become a more serious problem.

The Embarrassment 

I get this, particularly when you are younger. And we’re British – we pretty much have the international monopoly on being uptight. I have had three children, and age and numerous medical procedures and examinations have knocked the embarrassment factor out of me. The first time you go is a bit nerve-wracking however much you have or haven’t been poked and prodded in your life. The second time isn’t much better tbh. By the time you get to the third you are pretty much resigned to the whole thing.  But as a woman who has had many cervical screening tests, there is no point at which any of us will ever skip into the surgery, shout “yippee!” and leap up onto the bed in eager anticipation of the speculum.  None.

Now it may be first, second or third time for you, but it will not be the first, second or third time for the medical professional carrying out the procedure. It is difficult for me to emphasise enough to you how disinterested medical professionals are in any of your body parts, and that includes your lady parts. Medical professionals in this area see them all day, everyday. You don’t. In fact, unless you are very bendy indeed, you are the only person in the world who has the least chance of a proper look at your own cervix. But you know for you have a job yourself that any job, whatever it is, stops being a novelty after you’ve done it for a week. Otherwise, how would you do your job?

Yes, a complete stranger performs the test. I think that’s better don’t you? What if you’re lying there and your aunt, who is a doctor, walks in? If a stranger performing the test is a bit embarrassing then someone you know would be positively mortifying. You never have to see this person (except possibly in this context) again. And even if you did happen to bump into them socially, unless you were to whip off your trousers and assume the position, it is unlikely that they’d recognise you. Your aunt, on the other hand…..

And whilst I am here, the person doing your screening does not care if you have waxed vociferously; they don’t care if you have a bush like a rhododendron; they care not one jot if your legs are hair-free or if you’ve just shaved that bit that pokes out of the bottom of your jeans; they could not be less interested in whether or not you want keep your socks on because your feet are cold. What they care about, what they really care about, is getting the test done and done properly so it can be sent off to the person with the microscope to analyse and they can go home at the end of the day and watch ‘Bake Off’.  Just like the rest of us.

So wear a skirt so you can simply lift it up and not feel quite so exposed, take a friend to sit outside so they can shuffle you in and wait with cake for when you emerge, tell the doctor/nurse that you are a bit nervous, babble inanely to them, take some earphones so you can listen to some music instead, do whatever it is to make you feel better about the whole thing, but don’t not go because you’re a bit embarrassed.

The Procedure  

I agree that it is not the most comfortable way to spend five or ten minutes of your life. But it is only five or ten minutes of your life, potentially for your life. And I wouldn’t say it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. You all must know someone who has had cancer and chemotherapy. If you don’t, seek someone out and talk to them about their experience. If you’re sitting in a quad at work, at least one of you will have been affected by cancer, and if you haven’t, one of you will be. Five minutes of uncomfortable is a picnic in comparison to being faced with chemotherapy.

And there is some more good news. Short girls take note – one of my friends (we shall call her Diminutive Friend, for she is teeny tiny) told me that your height makes a difference to how easily your cervix is located. Diminutive Friend claims to be five feet two inches tall (Diminutive Friend is optimistic).  However, that is why she feels like her cervix is located in her throat when she goes for her cervical screening. I, on the other hand, am five foot nine, and Diminutive Friend has made many uncalled for and unkind jokes about the doctor or nurse advancing on me with a miner’s helmet, compass and a map in order to locate my cervix. There you go ladies of less height, something to be grateful for at last.

The Worry of What They Might Find  

There is a statistically small risk that the person with the microscope might report that something transpired from your test that requires further investigation. This would probably require someone else, if you’re lucky another complete stranger, having a bit of a poke around your now freshly waxed lady area. On the other hand, if you don’t go for a test, there is a statistical certainty that the person with the microscope will not make such a report.  If something does pop up in that report, you have two things that are vital; information and time. If nothing does pop up, then you can go about your daily business not wondering what might be because you know you’re looking after yourself.  However, just because they can’t make the report, it does not mean that the thing you are frightened of finding isn’t there.

Also, let me take this opportunity to assure you; your foo-foo is fundamentally no different or unusual to anyone else’s. Common sense and the continued survival of the human race dictates that bodies, including vaginas, are broadly speaking, all much of a muchness based around a generally successful design that has worked for millenia. The person performing the test is not going to recoil in horror declaring that they’ve never seen one that looks like that before. And, if there is by some infinitesimally small likelihood something slightly unusual about your vagina that is likely to affect your health and well-being that is also visible to the naked eye, then they are the person to spot it because it is their area of expertise.

I can’t make you go. I know I can’t. And your mothers would not have brought you up as I am hopefully bringing up my children if you weren’t prepared to stand up for yourselves. We want you to be strong and strident and shouty. For we are strong and strident and shouty. We want you to do all the things that are over and above what we have achieved, and continue to achieve, because we’re standing on the shoulders of the women who went before us. We want you to learn, to write, to sing, to dance, to read, to travel. We want you to vote, to protest. To help us sort the bloody government out – now that really is embarrassing. To get your noses pierced, get a tattoo. Cover your hair, not cover your hair. Wear utterly inappropriate shoes.  We want you to fall in love. We want you to fall out of love and say you’re never doing that again. And then we want you to do it all over again. There are times when a stiff British upper lip is called for – an unfortunate haircut, watching Boris Johnson trying to speak French, someone else taking the last chocolate biscuit – this is not one of them. Tell me I’m wrong. Please. Argue with me. Tell me I’m out of touch, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And then tell me why. I want you to do that. I need you to do that because we’re buggered without you. And the thing is, the thing is: you can’t do any of those things when you’re dead.

Because you’re dead.

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