“Hi, I’d like to book a cervical screening, but I DO NOT want to see the nurse practitioner.”
The same letter as before had hit my porch floor. When ringing up, I was expecting the usually nosy receptionists to question me on not wanting to see the nurse practitioner, or tell me that there’s nothing they can do given that the female doctor is on maternity leave. The way it was dealt with suggested to me that I’m not the only person to have requested exactly that. I booked in for 10 a.m. on Saturday, with an unknown nurse, at a different practice altogether.
“Can I ask a personal question?”
You’re a nurse, love, isn’t that your job? The sexual activity question. I suppose at least this time I was asked before I’d taken my knickers off. This time I’d brought my mum in with me into the treatment room – a little reassurance can go a long way.
“So, I don’t understand why, given the fantastically low odds of an abnormal result because you’ve had no sexual activity, you choose to put yourself through this.”
It’s probably important at this point to note that neither the letter, nor the booklet enclosed with the letter, mention this. They talk about changes in cells and about testing for HPV, but it does not state that if you’ve had no sexual activity, at least one medical professional will seemingly try to talk you out of the test you’ve now psyched yourself up for, for the second time.
“Some of these cancers are so slow growing its 5-20 years from first abnormal result to requiring cancer treatment. Anything faster is even rarer!”
Fear of the unknown is the biggest thing that drove me to go back. Attempt 1 had gone badly, so fear of the unknown now had a companion in a bad experience, and I knew that the longer I left it, the less likely I would be to ever have a screen performed.
“But, you’ve had an attempt, so you know what happens, there isn’t any more unknown to fear”
Strictly speaking, yes. But it’s not the taking my clothes off and showing my vulva to a medical professional that is the scary bit. There were no mysteries left for me on paper, I was intimately familiar with how the procedure works, but not how it feels to have it done. And anyway, if all I had to fear was someone trying to shove a vaguely cylindrical thing into my vagina while ignoring my distress and making flippant comments, I’d have just had sex with that loser at university.
But I was adamant. Low risk is not zero risk. I don’t know when I’ll have sex, it could be before this is published; it might not be for another 10 years. I do not want to let what could be a very important part of my health be left undone where it can fester and build the anxiety. Especially if they still send me letters for it, despite telling me I didn’t need to come back.
Head back, you can’t see anyway and you don’t particularly want to”
We’d made one error, it was about the third hottest day of the year and we didn’t bring the battery operated fan with us. Luckily, mum blew on my forehead to get me to cool down, as the nurse made a joke about the lubrication being cold as well; a blessing in disguise. Podcast on (Global Pillage, Season 3, Episode 3, in case you were wondering). Focus on breathing. Head back, you can’t see anyway and you don’t particularly want to. She was much more considerate, much gentler, and much more successful than the nurse practitioner from last time.
It was a bit of a shock when she actually opened the speculum to reach my cervix. But only because it was a completely new sensation that I hadn’t experienced before. A couple of seconds, a squeeze of my mum’s hand and a laugh in my ear from Deborah Frances-White who had helped me feel confident enough to come back in the first place, and I stopped holding my breath. Swab, swishy swish, and it’s all done. Into a sterilised pot with my name and date of birth on it to be sent to wherever it is that they need to be sent. Less blood, barely any after effects, coffee and cake and a day out shopping to follow.
I waited two weeks for my results. Three. Four. I was wanting a totally different letter to land in my porch. It didn’t.
Anxiety building again, I phoned my GP. The receptionist couldn’t give results on the phone, but if I phoned and spoke to the nurse practitioner she’d be able to.
I conceded and rang up again. A different receptionist told me no action was required. I was fine.
Smoking is the other big risk factor […] so are a poor diet and a weakened immune system”
It’s worth mentioning that the NHS website does say if you’ve never had any sexual contact they don’t deem a cervical screening to be necessary. But you can still have one if you want to. The risk is always deemed to be ‘very low’ and you can take that how you want. I chose to go ahead with a screen because ‘very low’ is still not ‘zero’, and I stand by my decision to do that. Smoking is the other big risk factor, and I don’t smoke, but so are a poor diet and a weakened immune system, of which I probably have both.
The conditions at your GP will be fine for most women, but they’re crude compared to what they have in the specialised units”
For future screenings, especially if the problem persists after sexual activity, the nurse told me to get the doctor to refer me to gynaecology. They’ve got a variety of speculum shapes and sizes, stirrups for my legs, and (I hope) a lollipop for afterwards. The conditions at your GP will be fine for most women, but they’re crude compared to what they have in the specialised units.
If I’m still having the same problem in three years, she recommends the place with better resources than cold lubricant, my mum blowing on my forehead and possibly a Where’s Wally on the ceiling. I’ll probably take that advice, and you should too.
Photo provided by Caroline Marie Delves.