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Cervical cancer screening: We asked 50 women about smear tests. The answers were unexpected

Cervical cancer screening rates are at an all-time low, with fear of the tests one of the main reasons stopping women from booking theirs in. But what is it really like to have a smear test? 50 women share their thoughts…

What does a smear test feel like?

Uncomfortable, painful, horrible, terrifying, necessary, fast: when we asked 50 of our readers to share their experiences on smear tests, they didn’t hold back.

We heard from women who put off booking cervical cancer screening tests because they dread them, and others who schedule them as soon as prompted. We spoke with women who find them mildly uncomfortable, and others who have experienced pain and bleeding. Some women had never even had a smear test, while others have had upwards of 10.

As new figures reveal that screening rates are at their lowest in two decades, Stylist shares these women’s thoughts on cervical screening, to provide a snapshot of our most honest views on smear tests – with absolutely no holds barred. 

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I have anxiety and absolutely hate using the phone, so it takes me months to get around to booking a smear test. Surprisingly enough, having a nurse insert an instrument into my vagina is the least stressful part of the experience for me. I wish you were just assigned an appointment via post or could book online.

Fiona, 31, freelance writer

My first test was really horrible – the nurse didn’t seem to care that I was nervous and even complained that there was blood in my sample, because it might make the test inconclusive. She basically said, ‘are you sure you’ve had sex? Because your body isn’t responding how it should’, to which I replied ‘I’m usually a bit more in the mood then…’

Janet*, 30, publicist at a publishing house

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At first, I always put off booking my smear tests, but when I turned 30 I realised I should take my health more seriously. My second smear detected HPV, which I didn’t know I had, but it cleared up with treatment. I found the tests painful, but a bit of pain is better than finding out I’ve got cancer years later.

Sarah, 35, marketing manager

I’m a virgin and my mum told me when I was much younger that I only need a smear test when I’ve had sex. I checked this with my GP and he said whilst true I could still have the test if I wanted. I thought ‘why not’, but then he showed me the contraption that is used and I ran for the hills!

Amy*, 30, legal practitioner and founder of a cake business 

I had my first smear test when I was 20, which used to be the age you were first prompted to have one in Scotland. It’s now 25, which I really don’t agree with.

I’ve had eight or nine smear tests, which is probably more than other women my age as I’ve had a couple of abnormal results in the past. When this happens you’re asked to repeat tests more frequently so they can keep an eye on any changes. I find that reassuring though, rather than an inconvenience.

I don’t put off booking them, although they can fall to the bottom of my list amongst other life admin. But I know they’re important, only take a few minutes and could save my life.

Alice, 29, marketing manager

As a plus size woman, I am always afraid of being judged for my body. This is obviously magnified in a space where you are so physically vulnerable, such as during a smear test, so I’ve been really nervous about them before. I’ve moved between four cities and three countries in the last five years, so I’ve often put off booking them. It’s tough to find a new doctor you trust when you move.

Hannah, 27, web and media manager

I put off booking smear tests – I know how bad that sounds, but I only make the effort to attend medical appointments if I have a physical problem. If I couldn’t make an appointment, I’d have no concerns about pushing it back. My second smear test results actually came back as abnormal but I was in no hurry to go for my third, as I felt OK and thought it may just be an error. Thankfully, my third test results were normal.

Laura*, 34, communications consultant and writer

I’ve had three smear tests since I was 25. I do put off booking them initially as, let’s be honest, it’s not a pleasant experience. It’s embarrassing and awkward and everything you don’t want to use up your holiday allowance at work for. I know my lovely nurse really well, too, which I actually find more awkward.

But you have to remember that the nurses do this every single day. They’re not judging you, they don’t care how you look – it’s not a vagina catwalk. It’s a necessary and vital medical screening procedure that could save your life, so a few minutes of cringe with your legs spread is worth a lifetime of good cervical health.

Tess, 32, freelance copywriter and fitness blogger

When I organised my first one I was nervous about the test coinciding with my period (can you have one when you’re on your period?!). [Note: the NHS advises that women don’t make appointments for cervical screening tests when they are on their periods]. I use the app Clue to gauge my cycles, so I was able to choose a week when it was all clear. It stopped me from worrying so much but it was still like doing the unknown. No one really talks about smear tests.

The test itself was quick, and a bit scratchy. I bled a little which was normal, and then cringed a bit on my cycle home. I was fine within a day or two though. I think the negative part is actually the anticipation of it all. The booklet that came with it explained everything clearly, but didn’t touch on the fact that we’re dealing with a “taboo area”. It’s quite clinical, but obviously the fear comes from it being an intimate area – one we’re taught not to talk about.

On the day, I did get nervous about having a male nurse examine me too.

Besma, 25, writer 

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I had my first smear test when I was 22. I had noticed some bleeding after sex and was advised to have a test. The results were abnormal so I had to have a colposcopy followed by a check-up smear every six months for the following three years. I’ve had countless tests since then, and now only have to go one once a year – I’m regularly invited back so don’t have to think about booking them, and have had so many that I’ve become desensitised to it now.

Most tests have been without incident, but there is one particular occasion that will be forever burned into my memory. It started as they always do with me explaining to the nurse that my cervix is slightly tilted (I have been informed at previous smears) so she might need to tilt the speculum (the cold, hinged fella they use to prize you open) upwards a bit to be able to take the sample. She was peculiarly icy with me from the start, as though we hadn’t just met and I had previously wronged her in some way, and I still to this day wonder whether what followed was personal… Anyway, when we got down to business she shoved the speculum in very roughly and proceeded to yank it open far wider than was required. I mean, honestly, she could have seen my tonsils at that angle. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she then left the room, leaving me lying there in agony with my vagina prized open for a full five minutes while I stared in disbelief at the ceiling waiting for her to return and complete the test.

Naturally, being British, I didn’t say anything to her at the time. I waited until I was on the bus to burst into tears as I bumped my way down the Clapham Road with a battered vagina.

Emily, 30, lobbyist (political consultant for big businesses) 

I’m a disability journalist and have only had one smear test due to my age, but I think it’s imperative for every woman to be tested regularly. I’ve seen many female doctors and nurses over the years because of my gynaecological health and have always had very positive experiences. Being blind, I have to put my trust in others daily… I’m more worried about knocking something over or falling off the bed in those particular circumstances, rather than the test itself.

Sassy, 27, disability journalist

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My smear test experience was positive: the nurse showed me the items to be used and asked if I had any questions or worries, which made me feel reassured. I was fairly relaxed because I had a twisted ovary a while back which I had lots of tests for, making me much less squeamish about internal exams.

Sophie, 27, digital marketer

I’ve had about 4 smear tests. I don’t keep track of the timings, I rely on the NHS to advise me when I’m due for my next check-up. I always book it as soon as I receive the notification; it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience, but it is a ‘must do’.

Cynthia*, 36, business manager at an artisan chocolate producer     

I’ve had seven smear tests. I always book them when prompted as my sister had unusual cells identified when she was younger (which later turned out to be nothing), so I take them really seriously. I don’t like them, but I grit my teeth and bare it.

Zoe, 37, PR & marketing consultant

I had my first smear test about two years ago. To be honest, it’s something I forget about (until I hear a horror story!) and I expect to get notified by my GP anyway, as it’s such an infrequent test.

Molly*, 33, head of brand 

I’ve put off booking smear tests in the past, but only because I’ve been pregnant. I’ve been told a lot of conflicting information about when to have a smear test after a pregnancy or miscarriage – either once post-partum bleeding stops, when I stop breastfeeding, three months after the birth, once I’ve had the first period… Despite this, I had no negative experiences with the two that I had.

Cimone, 35, primary school teacher

I’ve had about four to five smear tests, and I never put off booking them – I know they’re important and necessary, so I make sure I get them in the diary. I’ve never felt violated or embarrassed, and while it is never a pleasant experience, it just has to be done.

Nora*, 29, business owner

I’ve had too many smear tests to remember a precise number – at least 10 since my first one, which took place when I was 28. I had mild changes on two smear tests and had to go back for yearly repeats, and after one test I was given an internal, which uncovered a large ovarian cyst, which I had surgically removed. If it hadn’t been for that smear test, I wouldn’t have known about, and I could have had further complications.

Tiffany, 38, eCommerce business owner

I’ve had two smear tests, and I always book them in when I’m told to. The first one was very mildly uncomfortable, probably because it was the first time, but it wasn’t painful. I don’t even remember what my last one was like!

Jaimie, 31, self-employed business coach     

I’m Scottish, so I had my first smear test when I was 20. This was good because it meant I didn’t have a chance to get worried about it. I find them mildly uncomfortable but they’re not painful.

Diane, 25, playwright

I always book my smear tests straight away, to get them over and done with. I’ve had two so far, and I always tell the nurse to keep talking so I can focus on that rather than the actual test! I really struggle to ‘relax’ (in inverted commas because, let’s be honest, you can never ‘relax’ during a smear test), but the nurse is always patient and fast, and it’s over within seconds.

Hannah, 33, handler for a financial company

I have ectopic endometriosis, which causes infections and stops periods. It also means I have to have a smear test at least once a year; if I have a bad flare up and go to hospital, I might even need to have four in a short period of time. I’ve had nine so far and my last was in January 2018, so I’m not due another yet, although I do put off booking them sometimes as it gets to a point where you just dread them after having so many.

I’m used to them now, but they can feel incredibly intrusive, and, because of my endometriosis, the discomfort can last a day. Sometimes the test will even cause a flare up of my condition, which makes me anxious about having them, and adds to my reluctance to book them.

Hayley, 30, director of Boxed Out PR

I’ve had about nine smear tests. For a while I had to have one every six months as I had abnormal results. It was terrifying waiting for the results each time, and even though I was due another test last year, I haven’t booked it. The whole experience is uncomfortable and I dread going to have it done.

Tokie, 39, architect 

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“Body checking is not just unhelpful,” says Dr Bamford, “it can also be inaccurate.

I never put off booking my smear test – it’s important to get checked, and it doesn’t take long. My first test, when I was 25, resulted in me having to have a biopsy, which was rather painful and I admit I was a little nervous about what the future held. Fortunately, the results came back clear, and I was advised to have a test the following year to ensure everything was OK, which it was. It was also a bit of a wake-up call, and was the first time I truly questioned my mortality. It pushed me to focus on leading a healthier lifestyle, and highlighted the importance of regular checking.

Rachida, 30, founding editor of a magazine

I’ve had about six smear tests in the last four years, for various reasons. I usually book them every three years, unless I’ve been referred for another one. I find them really painful, and I try not to get worked up, but it’s difficult to relax when it hurts. I do think I’m in the minority in finding them so painful though.

Kirsty*, 29, self-employed

I’ve had three smear tests since I was 25, and I always book my appointment as soon as I get the letter. I never put it off – the alternative terrifies me. I found it embarrassing the first time, having never done anything similar, and it took a bit of getting used to. It is uncomfortable, but it’s over in a matter of minutes and I’d rather do that than know if something is wrong.

Jessica, 33, freelance digital PR consultant

I wanted to have a smear test in my early twenties as some close female relatives had problems with cysts, but I was told to wait until I was 25. My first test went better than I thought it would, but during the second I found myself reacting in pain, and I even bled. I had been having some difficulties with sex too. However the test came back fine and I was told it must all be in my head, and just be psychological.

Natalia, 30, intuitive business mentor

If the NHS hadn’t sent me a letter I probably wouldn’t have booked my first smear test. I’ll book my next one when I get another letter from my GP; I think they send them every three years. It’s not the most pleasant experience, but it’s very quick. It helps if the environment is calm and friendly, as relaxing is key.

Lo, 28, small business owner

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Cervical cancer screening: “I was told the pain must all be in my head, and just be psychological”

I found it difficult to book my first smear test, which I had when I was 25, because the fear of the unknown was quite hard to overcome. I’ve since had tests for both routine cervical checks and for investigation into other symptoms.

In one instance, however, I was referred to have a smear test which was booked in with the receptionist, but when I arrived the GP had not been passed on the message or read the notes properly. This particular test was a little rushed, and definitely painful. It felt very awkward as this was not a regular practice for the GP. I left the surgery in floods of tears as the whole situation had been so uncomfortable and the GP failed to empathise with the symptoms that they had been investigating.

Based on this experience, I will be nervous the next time I have a smear test if I come across someone quite inexperienced. However I do hold the general view that the nurses who conduct them day-in-day-out do a fantastic job!

Nancy*, 28, accountant

The last smear test I had was inconclusive so I had to book another, but my nurse had left my doctors and they told me they weren’t doing the test anymore. I rang sexual health clinics and other surgeries but no one could tell me how to go about getting one… it took about five months to get an appointment. It would be so much easier if there were drop in places you could go to, rather than having to schedule appointments with your GP surgery.

Claire, 36, personal trainer

I haven’t had positive or negative experiences with cervical screening – I feel neutral about the whole thing. Even though opening your legs and showing your lady bits to complete strangers is daunting and possibly embarrassing, it’s for the greater good.

Daryl, 35, estates coordinator

I’ve had six smear tests so far, but I put off them because I hate them. Apart from the whole speculum thing, I have severe pressure and pain in my pelvis from internal examinations. I’ve had testing for endometriosis but been told that I have undiagnosed pelvic pain and to just take painkillers for it.

Last year I had a smear test to try and understand why I had so much bleeding and pain, and was told that they were no longer able to use lubrication for the speculum. That was uncomfortable, in addition to my usual internal pains during exams. When I had my second smear a year later I was informed by that doctor that it was utter rubbish they were advised against using lubrication and she apologised I’d had to go through that.

Fiona, 35, owner of online marketing company Indie Essentials

Obviously no one wants to go for a smear test, but they really aren’t that bad. It’s no different to me screening people for potential oral cancer; early detection over late intervention is what I always say.

Also, the doctor once informed me I had a little thrush, which I was unaware of and had treated on the spot, which was great.

Anna, 31, dental hygienist

I’ve had five smear tests and never put off booking them, as I know how important they are. I booked one in while I was trying for a baby, as you can’t have them while pregnant. I’ve even had one while on my period – the nurse insisted!

Rachel*, 33, freelance PR consultant and copywriter

I’ve had two smear tests and my experiences have mainly been positive, apart from one retrospectively hilarious appointment when they couldn’t find my cervix. Several nurses had to get involved…

Anna*, 31, editor and commissioner of commercial fiction

I’ve had four or five smears and find them very painful in the UK – I had one in the US which was way better. It makes such a difference if you have a nice nurse doing it who talks to you, but that’s not always the case.

Belinda*, 28, commissioning editor

Reorganising my day so I can attend a smear test can be a bit of a pain, but it’s important to make the effort. But there’s a long wait for results and once you’ve had the test, you just really want to know whether everything’s OK or not. I know the NHS is under a lot of pressure but if there’s been an underlying problem undetected for up to three years, the sooner they can get results to you the better.

Megan*, 35, accountant

cervical cancer awareness week
Cervical cancer screening: “I’ve had four or five smears and find them very painful”

I’ve never had a smear test. In spite of receiving countless letters I’ve never prioritised it, which I realise is very, very bad. But with a busy job, it’s difficult to remember to put your health at the forefront of your mind unless you’re bedridden. My friend, who is turning 30 next February, only had her first smear test this year so it must be an Irish Catholic thing!

Aoife, 26, PR professional

I’m ashamed to say that booking smear tests is something I’m just not good at doing. I never go to the doctor if I can help it and I’m not even sure whether I’m registered with one currently. Both tests I’ve had have been because the doctor has suggested it while I’m there for something else.

Imogen, 28, tailor

The year before I got married, I had an abnormal smear result (aged 29), following a very normal routine check-up. It turned out, following a colposcopy, that I needed Loop Diathermy treatment due to a CIN3 cell result. It was a really traumatic experience that I wasn’t prepared for and it affected me emotionally, a lot more than I expected. However, had I not had that test, who knows how things could have progressed?

Amy, 34, freelance internal comms consultant 

I haven’t had a smear test yet – it just seems like something easy to put off booking in, like the dentist. And I suppose I’m also a little squeamish and nervous about it too.

Rose*, 25, publicist

I’m a huge supporter of the NHS but my third smear test wasn’t a great experience; the nurse was clearly stressed and too busy to really hear me when I explained my nerves about the appointment, and we ended up having to abandon it with me in tears.

I booked privately with BUPA for my fourth, and I’ll likely do it again next year for my fifth. My experience going private was very different—the whole appointment was more relaxed, and my doctor was really understanding. She gave me a great tip, too, which was to take a deep breath in before she inserted the speculum, and then breathe out slowly, almost yoga style, as it went in.

From talking to friends about their experiences, I think general efforts to make the whole thing a little friendlier, less uncomfortable, and doctors or nurses doing what they can to help patients feel more reassured and relaxed is what’s often missing from smear test appointments.

Holly*, 31, freelance writer

I had an abnormal result once and the NHS sent me a letter saying it was necessary for me to book a follow up appointment as soon as possible. That really panicked me as there was no clue as to the severity of what the issue was. In the end I had to have a colposcopy which found that all was fine, but it was quite a stressful experience due to the lack of information in the letter.

Oh, and there was also the time that I rang up to book a smear test, and had mistakenly called my dentist instead of my doctor. I think the receptionist was quite amused.

Fran*, 33, publicity manager

I put off getting a smear test for a year because there was an unspoken understanding that it would hurt and be really exposing. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I’m not sure when I’m supposed to have my next one – it’s bad that I don’t know that, isn’t it?

Jessica*, 26, journalist

cervical cancer awareness week
Cervical cancer screening: “I’m not sure when I’m supposed to have my next one – it’s bad that I don’t know that, isn’t it?”

I never put my smear tests off. Witnessing Jade Goody die from such an awful thing has always stuck in my mind and always will. I had my first when I was 20 – the age limit was lower then, which I think was a really good thing.

Jade*, 34, student

Despite living in London for seven years I’m still registered with my family doctor back home in Newcastle – I know it can be a nightmare getting appointments in London. Both of my smear tests have been unpleasant. Each time, the nurse has had difficulties locating my cervix (who knew it could move around so much and then hide at the worst possible moment?) and once it took over an hour to locate. Safe to say I’m not looking forward to my next one on my 31st birthday!

Helen*, 30, SEO expert

My smear test was uncomfortable and felt like an internal scratch, but I won’t put off booking my next one because I’m anxious about my health. For me, the scarier thought is having a bigger issue later in life that requires even more invasive procedures than a smear test.

Polly*, 26, journalist

I was tested during a smear test awareness week campaign. The nurses were really knowledgeable, kind and supportive. I don’t know how often you’re meant to go for them though – every year or every two years? Do they send out reminders?

Anna*, 29, director 

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Cervical cancer screening: “For me, the scarier thought is having a bigger issue later in life that requires even more invasive procedures”

I went for my first smear test as soon as I turned 25, and didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, when I got a letter saying my results had come back ‘abnormal’.

This freaked me out at first. The letter came with a leaflet about cervical cancer, and even though it emphasised that it’s common for women to get abnormal smear test results, I felt anxious. I was asked to go for a colposcopy, and I got even more nervous when I found out what that actually is. Basically, it involves having a speculum (sort of like a magnifying glass on a very long, cold stick) inserted into your vagina so they can take a closer look at your cervix. The nurse then may have to take a biopsy, which is what happened to me. A cervical biopsy essentially means having a bit of your cervix snipped off, and it’s briefly painful, but not excruciating. Imagine the hot feeling of having your ear pierced, except deep inside your vagina, and you’re not far off. They then send that tiny bit of your cervix off to a lab to be analysed, and give you a massive sanitary towel to wear in your knickers on the way home.

For me, it wasn’t the colposcopy itself that was upsetting - it was my experience of being in hospital more generally. The medical staff I encountered were all absolutely lovely, but the receptionists were rude and unhelpful and made me feel even more bewildered than I did already. A couple of weeks after my colposcopy, I got a letter saying my results had come back inconclusively, so I had to go back and go through it all again. Luckily, the nurse on the second go decided she didn’t have to do another biopsy.

Six weeks later, I got a letter saying my results had cleared of their own accord and I wouldn’t need any further treatment. The whole experience was nerve-wracking, but I’m glad I went for my smear test so early. I’d rather have a couple of weeks of anxiety and my mind be at rest now.

Claire*, 26, editor

I’ve had three smear tests and they are uncomfortable, but I feel lucky to have the privilege of being tested. In this case, prevention is definitely better than cure.

Amanda*, 28, social enterprise founder

*Some names have been changed

Love them or loathe them, cervical screening tests are potentially life-saving procedures. You can find more information on the NHS here, or visit charities Jo’s Trust and Eve Appeal for support.

This article was originally published in January 2019

Images: Getty, iStock, Unsplash


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