Cervical Cancer Screening and HPV Q&A

[This is an archived post from my old blog or Medium that I was particularly proud of originally published in 2016. All info was correct at time of publishing]

If you are a vagina owner around the age of 25, you’re probably nearing your first smear. I know that this can be quite daunting, but it’s such an important thing that you really can’t afford to miss it. I had my first cervical smear at the age of 24 and they found HPV, since then I’ve had check ups every year and thankfully it’s been OK. So with this in mind, I asked my social media friends to give me their questions all about smears and HPV.

How do you best prepare for your smear or colposcopy?
The best way to be prepared in my opinion is by doing your research, find out what the examination involves and ways that you can make it easier on yourself. If you are nervous about it, try and talk to someone who is qualified or has had it themselves who can put your mind at ease. On the day, wear loose fitting and comfortable clothing- skirts and dresses can even sometimes be left on if they’re easily rolled up. If you feel comfortable doing so, share your concerns with the practitioner so that they can make it as easy as possible for you.

What happens at a smear?
A cervical cancer screening, commonly known as a smear or pap smear (US), happens when you hit 25 and then every 3 or 5 years (depending on where you live). You’re asked to strip from the waist down and lie on the bed with your legs in the stirrups. You are then examined by your nurse using a little device called a speculum to open you up. Some swabs are taken to test for cervical cancer and HPV. The examination really doesn’t take very long but can be a bit uncomfortable.

Does a speculum hurt?
It can for some, but mostly it’s just a bit uncomfortable. Most practises use plastic speculums now so they’ve a lot gentler than the old metal ones and they come in a range of sizes. They’re also lubed up to slide in easily. It’s only really in your vagina for a few minutes, but if you are in pain you can ask to stop at any time.

What is HPV? Can you explain the different levels?
Human Papiloma Virus is the worlds most common sexually transmitted infection (4 in 5 people) as it’s mainly spread by skin to skin contact; genital to genital, oral, vaginal and anal sex. Most people won’t show any signs of HPV and in a lot of cases the infection is just fought off by the body. HPV can cause changes to cervical cells which can lead to cancer. Of the over 100 types of HPV, around 13 can cause cervical cancer. This is why a smear test is so important.

Has having HPV affected your life?
Not really, when I was first diagnosed the fear from being so uninformed scared me more than anything else. And now it’s just the worry of finding out if my status has changed every year. I tell sexual partners I have it, but I’ve never encountered a stigma because it’s so widely spread.

What happens at a colposcopy?
If abnormal cells are found at your smear, you will be invited to a colposcopy. It’s just a more detailed way of looking at your cervix, done using a microscope at a hospital. The microscope will not go inside your body, with the speculum going in again. They do a couple of tests with either vinegar or iodine (which can sting a little) to bring out the colour of the abnormal cells. To get a proper diagnosis, the colposcopist will take samples of your cells. This can be done with either a punch biopsy, which can hurt a little bit, or a loop biopsy which is a longer treatment but done under anaesthesia (honestly the needle is the most painful part).

What happens next?
If you have a clear smear then you will be invited back routinely every 3 or 5 years. If your smear finds HPV you may require treatment, and you will be asked back for a smear yearly to monitor the situation.

Some great references
– Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust

Lex Croucher did a great video on the topic

I wanted to end this post with a reminder to book your smear, it can save your life! 
And if you got yours recently 

3 thoughts on “Cervical Cancer Screening and HPV Q&A”

  1. Great post, I'm waiting on my first and this has calmed my nerves a little. I no doubt have the HPV virus based on that statistic and how slutty I was in my youth so I'm glad I now know to expect that! Libfemblog.com xxxx


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