I was not expecting to receive my smear test letter before I turned 25 so when mine fell through the letterbox in mid-March – exactly six months before my 25th birthday – I felt a little bit sick. Many women dread the arrival of the smear test letter, purely because the thought of a cervical smear is so intrusive.
The speculum in particular looks alien if, like me, you’ve never had penetrative sex. At almost-but-not-quite 25, not a single soul has seen me with no knickers on, let alone my bare vulva, and I’d never really had anything up there bar a couple of toys that I’d dabbled with in the past. So it’s safe to say that the thought of having this experience with a stranger wasn’t hugely appealing. You don’t have to be a 'virgin' for it to feel intimidating: the way I feel as a straight virgin is probably the same way that many people, particularly queer and trans people who are sexually active but haven’t had penetrative sex, feel about the procedure.
Because of this, I was half-tempted to ignore my letter and book the test when I turned 25, hoping I’d feel more 'ready' by then. But I knew it was important.
Dr Deborah Lee, a sexual and reproductive health doctor from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, tells Refinery29: "The thing to remember is that cervical screening saves lives. By coming forward to be screened, you are being sensible and responsible. Prevention is always better than cure." Research suggests that a quarter of the 2,500 new cases of cervical cancer a year could be prevented by cervical screening. So it’s really a no-brainer.
Which is how I ended up here, psyching myself up the day before my smear test. Whether you’re in the same boat as me or just curious, here’s everything that happened before, during and after my first cervical smear as a virgin.
The day before
One day before my smear test, the nerves began to get me. I had opted for a full body shave to give me a confidence boost beforehand, though not because I worried what my nurse would think – after all, she sees hundreds of vulvas and bodies every week. Still, I was nervous about somebody seeing me with no knickers on for the first time, and far more worried about what the entire process would feel like. Dr Lee assures us that "a smear test should not be painful," adding that "some women find it more uncomfortable than others" due to conditions like vaginismus and endometriosis. She says that the nurse or gynaecologist carrying out the test will do all they can to help you as much as they can, and adds: "The more you can try and relax, by breathing slowly and deeply through your nose, the easier it is for the smear taker, and the quicker it will be over."
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help asking myself: What if it hurts like so many horror stories say online? How big will the speculum be? And how will it feel?
The morning of the smear test
I woke up worried: mid-sweat, clammy and not looking forward to the day ahead. Even the thought of the manicure and pedicure I’d booked for a treat afterwards (self-care and all that) didn’t help. I ended up googling too much, reading way too many horror stories and then crying for a solid five minutes before psyching myself up again and feeling prepared for what awaited me at the doctor’s surgery.
At the GP I waited nervously with my mum. When my name came up on the screen, I gave Mum my bag and headed down the hallway and into the nurse’s room. I went into robot mode – where you just do exactly what someone tells you to do – which helped. I felt fine albeit slightly nervous as she asked my name, date of birth and if this was my first smear test, before quizzing me about contraception.
She asked if I had any questions so I decided to try to clear up my anxieties by asking: "Do you use a small speculum?" The nurse nodded and told me that the ones they use are all small, which left me feeling relieved after seeing an array of different sizes online, including some quite hefty ones. A speculum allows the nurse to look inside you by widening your cervix in order to take a swab. While chatting to the nurse I left out the fact that I’d never had penetrative sex since she didn’t seem bothered either way. Painting a picture of what would happen next, she explained the process, how she’d insert the speculum and that I should let her know if I wanted her to stop at any point. She finished up by saying that it should only take a few minutes unless my cervix was hard to find, then invited me to go behind the curtain, undress and lie on the bed with a sheet of paper over my lap.
When I was on the bed I called the nurse, who told me to shuffle down the bed a little, lie back and put my feet up to my bum "as much as you can". She then told me to flop my legs and relax while she put lube on a super slimline, plastic speculum (NOT the cold metal one I’d read about).
"Deep breath," said the nurse as she slid the speculum into me. To my amazement I didn’t feel anything. Nothing at all, other than a sensation of calm at the knowledge it was almost over and a slight 'wet' feeling because of the lube. Then I heard a clicking and felt a strange, stinging pain as the speculum opened up. It wasn’t painful, just an unusual kind of crampy sting – but it didn’t last for long and before I knew it she had shut the speculum, pulled it out and was telling me to get dressed. Apparently my cervix was easy to find!
I didn’t even feel the nurse take the swab – something that left me a little taken aback because I’d imagined that would be the bit I would feel the most. The entire process took no more than five minutes, from walking through the door to walking out. The nurse told me that my results would be with me within a couple of weeks. She was incredibly reassuring throughout the entire process and I felt really well looked after.
After it was all done I took myself for a manicure and pedicure. I deserved it, after all. Despite all my worries and my lack of experience in that area, I felt absolutely fine and had no discomfort afterwards. It felt like a weight had been lifted.
Dr Lee tells us that nine out of 10 women will have a normal smear test result, meaning that no cell changes were found on the cervix. One in 10 will need to undergo a more in-depth test, known as a colposcopy (although this does not automatically mean that there is anything to worry about). "It’s very important to follow the advice about future smears and smear appointments," Dr Lee says. "Remember that any abnormalities are likely to be relatively easily treated."
Obviously now it's the dreaded wait for the results but I've done the hardest part and honestly, it wasn't hard at all.