It’s an issue that is not talked about enough in the media and in life – cancer and heart disease, diabetes and obesity – they all get lots of (deserved) media coverage. Yet female reproductive health can be – often is – the silent killer. Because it’s icky, it’s personal and it’s, frankly, embarrassing.
So fair warning, people – I’m going to talk about it. Not only that, I’m going to talk about my reproductive health. So whether you’re a proud owner of a vagina, or you love someone who has one, I hope this helps.
The cervical smear test
Embarrassing, undignified, often uncomfortable. Simply put, it takes a layer of cells from your cervix which are then checked for abnormalities. One of the simplest and quickest ways to discover cell changes that could lead to cancer.
I don’t cope well with these tests. Not only do I find them extremely uncomfortable, I have what one nurse referred to as “an excitable cervix” – yep, that’s me. It’s like a happy little puppy in there. Actually no, it means it doesn’t deal with being messed with very well and I always end up bleeding slightly.
I did apologise for the content before I started this, right? So it’s not my fault if you got to this point and felt ill.
Anyway, in the wake of Jade Goody’s death from cervical cancer in 2009 – at the unbelievably young age of 27 – the number of women attending their scheduled cervical smear tests rocketed. It was in the public domain and women took note, endured the discomfort and embarrassment and just bloody well got on with it. Well done to every single one of them. They reclaimed their bodies and the autonomy to decide what happens to them.
Yet in the years since, those numbers have declined again. Are still declining. As though one clear test means you’re safe forever. THAT IS NOT THE CASE.
In August 2015 I got a negative result requiring further investigation. That investigation is called a colposcopy, where they put your feet up in stirrups and a consultant gynaecologist takes a damn good look at your cervix with something the size of the Kepler space telescope. It is even less dignified than the original test. It is also, without doubt, a life-saver.
During my colposcopy they took three punch biopsies – tiny flakes of tissue each the size of a grain of sand. I was asked to cough each time, and by concentrating on the cough, I didn’t feel a thing. So, nothing to worry about with that.
The biopsy results were negative for cancer. The cells were identified as pre-cancerous – not dangerous, but with the capacity to be so if left untreated. Treatment is simply removal of the affected area.
At this point I’d like to point something really important: I don’t have an STI, I’ve never had an STI, this isn’t caused by an STI. One in around 20 women get these cell changes at some point during their lives.
Okay, my sexual health status cleared up, back to the narrative.
My consultant recommended a local anaesthetic to remove the affected cells. Now at this point I will admit that a local in that particular area moves out of the discomfort stage and into the oh-dear-god stage.
But my viewpoint is quite simple: is a local anaesthetic worse than cancer?
I don’t think I need to answer that question.
So I rocked up at the clinic all gung ho to have needles pushed into my cervix. I got on the table, got my legs up there, the Kepler telescope did its thing … and my consultant decided that the cell changes were too widespread to be removed under local.
So – yay, no needles! Boo, widespread. Yay, no needles! Boo, this is actually pretty terrifying. Insert expletive of your choice here.
Long story short, I had the procedure done under general anaesthetic. During the procedure, they took another biopsy – I’m still waiting on the results for that, but fingers crossed all will be fine. The procedure removed all of the affected cells and while I had a pretty uncomfortable and exhausting week following it, I don’t regret a thing.
Again, let me point out: is a small operation worse than cancer?
So what’s the point to this embarrassing and intimate story? Am I a drama queen so desperate for attention I’ll go to such lengths as reciting my reproductive health?
The point is that at no time during this process or before it have I felt unwell. As far as I was – am – concerned, I’m as fit as a horse. I work out in the gym 4-5 times a week. I walk miles every day, I squat, bench and deadlift serious weight, I can run a couple of miles without warming up or running out of breath, I can cycle 30 miles without really thinking about it.
I’m fit. I’m healthy. I’m in shape.
But I also have this thing going on inside me that isn’t healthy. This thing that I had no knowledge of, this thing that IF I HADN’T HAD MY REGULAR TEST I WOULD HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF. You can’t use how you feel as a barometer for stuff like this. If you did, you could end up with your pre-cancerous cells becoming cancerous and, by the time they were making you feel ill, it might be too late.
I’ve heard women say things like “You can’t get it if you’ve had kids”, or even “What’s the point, I’ve had my kids so I don’t need to worry if anything goes wrong down there”, and the obvious, the always-used “It won’t happen to me”.
But the point is, it might. I’m sorry to scare you, but it’s true. So please, if you are a proud vagina-owner, or you love someone who is, ask them – beg them – to attend their appointments.
We need to give this silent killer a voice. And then we need to strangle that voice through medical intervention and by, ultimately, the bravery of women.
Because cancer is worse than a test. Always. Every time. ALWAYS.