Despite living in an era with a major focus on health and wellbeing, the number of women attending their smear tests is at its lowest rate in almost two decades.
The potentially lifesaving screening involves a speculum being inserted into the vagina so cells can be retrieved from the cervix. While some women have perfectly understandable reasons for avoiding a smear test - for some, the shape of their cervix means it can hurt, or survivors of sexual assault may find it traumatic - many are known to avoid it due to being embarrassed.
The intimate nature of the procedure means people are put off the idea of exposing themselves even briefly, but because it can detect the possible onset of cancer before it properly develops, it's too valuable a screening for young women to miss out on. With that in mind, we spoke to Dr Alex Eskander, a Consultant Gynaecologist at The Gynae Centre, about all the ways you can make the experience more comfortable - and less embarrassing.
1.Remember that doctors don’t have any opinions about your body
It might be hard to remember, but when you go to see the gynaecologist you are basically one of hundreds of other women on a conveyor belt waiting to be seen, so you're not going to be judged. "One of the more common reasons for why women avoid going for smear tests is embarrassment about their body shape or the appearance of their vulva," says Dr Alex. "But the truth is that gynaecologists really don’t have any opinions about this. Our main concern is our patient’s health. We see many different bodies on a daily basis – and each and every one is individual."
2. Ask for a female nurse or gynaecologist
You know that is an option. "If patients have any concerns about seeing a male gynaecologist, they may be surprised to know that much of the time smear tests are carried out by female nurses," advises the doctor. "But if not, they can always ask to see a female nurse or gynaecologist. Additionally, you can bring a friend for support."
3. Wear a long skirt
In order for the doctor or nurse to access your cervix, you're going to need to remove your knickers and ensure the clothing on your lower half isn't impeding their access. "If you’re worried about feeling exposed, we recommend attending your screening wearing a long skirt so you can pull it up rather than completely removing trousers," suggests Dr Alex, adding: "This can often help women feel more comfortable."
4. Ask the medical practitioner to slow down or stop at any time
"I often get asked by patients if the smear test will be painful. Whilst a smear test may be uncomfortable, it should not be painful – but if it is, you can ask your gynaecologist to stop," says the gynaecologist, adding that the equipment used - the phallic-shaped speculum - "is designed to make it as comfortable as possible".
"Women are also often worried about cells being scraped from their cervix, but it’s a soft brush we use to collect the cells, and the majority of the time, they don’t even feel it," he reassures.
5. Try some deep breathing to aid relaxation
It's an age-old technique, but it's an effective one. "Although smear tests should not be painful, being tense can certainly make it more uncomfortable. Try five minutes of deep breathing prior to your appointment to aid in relaxing the vaginal muscles," advises Dr Alex.
6. Remember that an abnormal result doesn’t mean you have cancer
If your concern about a smear test is less embarrassment, and more fear of what you might find out, the doctor has some words of reassurance for you: "Women will often delay coming in for their screening because they are worried that an abnormal result will mean they have cervical cancer, but this is not the case at all. There is a lot of misunderstanding around what a smear test is for.
"Cervical smears are tests that look for the cells that might potentially turn into cancer. 1 in 20 smear tests come back with abnormal results, and while this doesn’t mean you have cancer, it means you are at risk. The good news is that abnormal cells are much easier to treat at an early stage and this can be done in around 15 minutes. When it’s more advanced it may not be as treatable," says Dr Alex.
7. Let us know you’re nervous so we can talk you through each step
If you're nervous about your smear test you are not alone, but it’s important to remember that three minutes of embarrassment and potential discomfort can save your life. "Let your doctor or gynaecologist know if you’re nervous," suggests the gynaecologist. "To minimise discomfort I usually explain every step and what to expect during the procedure. I would also recommend reading about others’ experiences of their smear tests online so you know what to expect and to put your mind at ease."