The Importance of Booking Your Smear Test

Booking your smear test is hugely important, but that’s not to say it isn’t a daunting prospect. In Ireland, at the age of 25, women are invited to have a free smear test done every three years, to screen for cervical cancer, or other potentially harmful cells. It is a quick procedure, but many women can find it frightening. This article is here to help alleviate that stress and to clear up any misconceptions about smear tests, and the importance of booking your smear test.  To answer all your questions, check out this link to the HSE website

What Is A Smear Test?

A smear test, also known as a PAP test (Papanicolaou test) or a cervical screening, is how doctors screen a woman’s cervix. They take a portion of cells from the neck of the cervix and test them for changes or abnormalities. Smear tests are a way of detecting changeable cells, or pre-cancerous cells, before they can mitigate into cancer. 

How Is A Smear Test Performed? 

Smear tests are performed using a device called a speculum, which is inserted into the vagina to reach the neck of the cervix. This is used to open up the vagina, allowing for a soft brush to then be inserted to take cell samples from the cervix. 

Does A Smear Test Hurt? 

This varies from person to person. For some women, smear tests don’t hurt at all. For others, they can be uncomfortable. This can be down to all sorts of reasons, and there are a few ways you can ease this discomfort, which I’ll explain later in this article. It is important to remember however that even if it is a little painful, the smear test appointment will only be about 20 minutes, and the actual smear test is only up to three minutes. So even if it is sore, it will only be for a short time. 

What Happens After?

The sample taken during the smear test will be tested for HPV. If you test positive for HPV, the sample will then be tested for abnormal cells. If you test positive for HPV it isn’t the end of the world – this doesn’t mean that you have cancer. You will however have to have a smear test done annually instead of every three years in order for your doctor to keep an eye on things and to ensure that the cells don’t mitigate. If your results come back clear, you will return in three years time to get another smear test. Results take between four and six weeks to return, although due to Covid-19, there is a delay currently, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard back yet – it is not an indication necessarily of your result. 

How Can I Book A Smear? 

You can book a smear test with your GP. Alternatively, there are over 4,500 nurses who can perform a smear test in Ireland. You can also register here with your PPS number and your age, and you will be contacted when you are eligible for a smear test. 

Why Do I Have To Wait Until I’m 25?

Although there has been debate over the age of 25, the main reason you can’t get a smear test when you’re younger is because your body is still growing, meaning your cells are still changing. A smear test could pick up that you have changing cells, which are not cancerous, but could cause you great worry. It is generally considered from the age of 25, your body has finished growing, and so it is safe to do a smear test and rely on the result. If you’re concerned, you can book in for a smear test before the age of 25, however, it isn’t free and the results could come back abnormal (even when there’s nothing wrong), so it is best to discuss all your options with a GP. 

Do I Have To Have A Smear Test If I Have Had The Cervical Cancer Injection? 

People are often confused about why they have to get smear tests when they’ve already had the cervical cancer vaccine. What is often not explained is that the vaccine, or the HPV injection, only protects against nine kinds of HPV. There are over 100 strains of HPV, 14 of which are cancer-causing. The cervical cancer vaccine best works for girls between 9 and 15 as it has a higher chance of working for girls who aren’t sexually active, however, many will only have started receiving the injection at the age of 17 or 18. HPV is commonly passed through sexual activities, which is not limited to penetrative sex. Therefore, if someone who is sexually active gets the HPV vaccine it may not be as effective, and so the best way to go about prevention is to get regular cervical screenings. 

Ways To Make A Cervical Screening More Comfortable

Just because a cervical screening is essential, doesn’t mean it’s comfortable. This is one of the reasons so many women put off their smear tests, and this can be a dangerous practice. A smear test can be the difference between life and death in extreme cases – if they find precancerous cells early enough it can be better treated. Here’s a list of ways to make your smear test experience more comfortable. 

  • Wear comfortable clothing, a long skirt or dress (as you will need to be undressed from the waist down, this way you can feel more covered up)
  • Request a female doctor (if this would make you more comfortable) in advance
  • Ask as many questions as you have – the more knowledgeable you are about the procedure, the more comfortable you will be 
  • Take painkillers beforehand if you’ve had a painful experience before 
  • If you want support, a friend or family member can sit in the room with you
  • You may be asked if a trainee nurse can stand in for learning purposes – although this is a great teaching method, if this will make you more uncomfortable, you can say no 
  • Remember these doctors and nurses do this for a living – if you’re uncomfortable with the undressing aspect of the smear test, remind yourself that they have seen it all before, and there’s no need to feel embarrassed

Jade Goody’s Story 

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Jade Goody, TV Personality

At the end of the day, a cervical screening, or smear test, is the best way to prevent or intervene with potential cancer developing. Their importance was perhaps never emphasised more than when TV star Jade Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer on live television in August 2008. She was only 27 years old. Jade had been suffering for years with abnormal cells and had tested HPV positive. After years of not knowing what was wrong, it was a smear test that confirmed she was suffering from Stage 4 cervical cancer and that she was terminal. It was only seven months later that she sadly passed away. What happened to Jade Goody has made it all the more important for women to get smears, to keep an eye on their body and any potential changes. To see a doctor and insist on tests if they don’t feel right, as Jade didn’t for years before her diagnosis. Jade was consistently sent to get abnormal cells burned off – if her cancer had been found sooner she may have had a chance of survival. The number of women booking their smear tests skyrocketed after Jade’s death, and there’s no doubt that her story saved the lives of countless women. 

Jade’s story shouldn’t scare monger, but show that cervical cancer can be caught early and treated, all starting with a short visit to the GP’s office. Her story shows why there needs to be such an importance placed on booking your smear test. Although the age for free smear tests is 25, if you don’t feel right and you’re under 25, after a chat with your GP, do go for a smear test regardless. 

Although you should never self diagnose with an internet search, here are some of the symptoms to watch out for that may make a trip to the GP’s office necessary.

Potential Symptoms
  • Irregular bleeding (outside of period, before or after sex, after menopause)
  • Unusual discharge
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic pain 
  • Pain in lower back or side
  • Constipation 
  • Swelling in legs
  • Blood in your urine 

Many of these symptoms can be caused by an array of other illnesses, so if you have any, just speak to your GP and try not to worry. 

As a woman on the verge of turning 25, I understand how daunting booking your smear test can be. I am partially writing this article in order to encourage myself to get mine booked and over with as soon as possible, because I know my urge is to put it off. However, if researching and writing this article has taught me anything, it is to look at the bigger picture. It will be worth a few moments of discomfort for the assurance that I’m healthy. 

Katy Thornton
Katy Thornton

Katy is a Creative Writing graduate from UCD who freelance writes and is currently working on her debut novel.

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