Smear Fear

Sarah27th January 202112 min

Well, this is a bit different isn’t it? When I started writing blog posts for Anxious Extrovert I thought they’d be about my mental health, not vaginas (this is about both so let me off). I’m not going to explain what a smear test is or why they’re offered in this blog post - for more information on this you could read NHS cervical screening information. As cervical cancer prevention week and the #SmearForSmear campaign ends (18-25th January), it’s important we don’t stop talking about the importance of smear tests. In these uncertain times of covid19, it seemed apt to discuss my first smear test, which was during lockdown, in the hopes it will benefit anyone who’s nervous or putting off attending their smear (aka cervical screening). 

Pre-Appointment Nerves

I have what is known as ‘white coat syndrome’ (white coat referring to the stereotypical doctors uniform). This means my blood pressure is usually higher when I’m in a medical environment (ie doctors surgery, hospitals) than if I was at home. I get my blood pressure checked at the doctors a couple times a year and they more often than not have to do it twice to get an accurate reading. Waiting rooms are also something I’ve struggled with since I can remember and something that triggers my anxiety. It doesn’t matter what I’m waiting for or where I am, they make me very nervous and the longer I have to wait, the worse I feel. 

It can feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place because if I attend appointments early, with the intention of being able to breathe and calm myself down, it means I’m actually in there longer - which makes my anxiety worse. On the other hand, I hate being late or last minute to appointments and this, coupled with having no time to sit and calm myself down, also doesn’t help my anxiety. I therefore try to be 5 minutes early, as opposed to 10 or more, to try and work on my breathing before being called into my appointment.

My point is, my ‘smear fear’ (is that a thing or have I just made it up?) was not just around the test itself, but the whole appointment. I had luckily(?) had a similar examination before - lucky is probably a poor choice of word here, but I mean lucky in the sense I knew what to expect, which always alleviates some nerves for me. I wasn’t really worried about what the results might be and ‘what if they find something’ because if they do, I know I’ve caught it at the earliest possible time and I would rather know now than later. I also wasn’t nervous about attending an appointment during the covid19 lockdown because Doctors surgeries and staff are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of you catching it there. I was actually surprised how calm I was up until the day of my appointment because, even though I know ‘it’ll be fine’, a few years ago I’d have felt a lot worse in the run up. To calm some of your pre-appointment nerves I recommend reading the articles on Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and/or watching Zoe Suggs’ Live Smear Test, Q&A With The Nurse & Office Group Discussion.  

Attending a Smear During Covid19/ Lockdown

I can’t speak for every doctor’s surgery but I’ll share my experience with mine. You had to wear a mask and ring the intercom outside the building to tell them you’ve arrived - so they can limit the amount of people in the waiting room and ask you if you have any covid symptoms before you enter. There was also a hand sanitiser there to use. They let me into the waiting room (through automatic doors) and half of the chairs had been taken out to allow for social distancing. N.B. there was only me in there (and the receptionists behind their desk & wearing masks).

As I expected, as soon as I sat down the nerves kicked in. A racing heartbeat, harder to take slow deep breaths and restless. I would usually go on my phone to distract myself, scroll through social media or spam my friends with irrelevant texts. Instead, I kept my phone in my bag and tried the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. I also tried taking some deep breaths in and out. I somewhat understand my anxiety at this point, so it’s just about managing my symptoms.

I wasn’t waiting for long before the female nurse shouted for me. She was in full PPE and even when holding doors open for me, she attempted to stay a meter away from me. The appointment started with her asking me if I had covid symptoms and when my last period was. She then got my consent to perform the smear and asked if I wanted a chaperone present (I didn’t). She gave me the opportunity to ask her any questions I had (I didn’t have any as I’d researched smears beforehand online). You could also use this time to explain any worries you might have (and remember if you want to stop at any point, or take a moment to yourself, you can). 

She invited me to get undressed from the waist down and lie down on the bed, behind the privacy of a curtain. I covered my lower half with a clean piece of paper and told her when I was ready for her to come around to perform the smear. Whilst lying down I put my feet to my bum and dropped my knees sideways, she inserted the speculum, opened it up slightly and took the sample. Click here if you’d like an idea of what the equipment looks like. I’ve read the actual smear takes a couple of minutes but I would say it was less than a minute. It was slightly uncomfortable, but not painful and was over quickly. She then let me get re-dressed behind the curtain whilst she got the test ready to send away. I was then able to leave the surgery - the whole appointment was around 10 minutes and my results will be sent to me via a letter within the next 4 weeks.

Tips

Some tips I would give are to research smears beforehand, so if you have any further questions you can ask the nurse. Wear a skirt or dress, so you only have to take your underwear off and can just pull your skirt/dress up. If not, wear a long top or jumper if you want to feel a bit more covered up and loose trousers so they’re easier to take on and off. You could take a pantyliner as you may have some light spotting afterwards. If you google your doctor’s surgery, it’s likely they have listed the precautions they’re taking due to c19, or you can ask them when booking your appointment. 

I strongly believe it’s worth going, for the sake of a short appointment, to potentially save you complications, or your life, in the long run. If I can do it, you can too! There’s always someone to talk to about any concerns, from friends to professionals - see the support from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. I believe in you.

Sarah from Anxious Extrovert x

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