This post is about smear tests.
Specifically, it’s about MY smear tests.
Because of that, it probably contains a little bit TMI for some of you. Like my dad, for instance. Or my male friends and relatives. And anyone else who knows me in real life, and who is hereby given permission to never speak to me of this again. Ahem.
And, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about those times you strip to the waist and have an invasive medical test that you KNOW could potentially save your life, but which you’d happily walk through fire to avoid, shall we?
So, smear tests. There’s been a lot of talk about them online and in the media lately, and this is a Very Good Thing Indeed, because the fact is – and I want to be really, really clear about this – smear tests are super-important. They could LITERALLY save your life, and if that isn’t enough to persuade you NOT to go for the “walking through fire” option, then, I don’t know what will.
(Yeah, you felt it coming, didn’t you?)
There are currently a lot of campaigns running, all of which have the very laudable intention of encouraging more women to go for smear tests. Some of my favourite bloggers have written about the subject recently, and just a few weeks ago, I was asked to take part in a social media campaign designed to encourage women to attend their smear tests, by telling them how easy and totally non-scary it all is.
I said no.
Well, it wasn’t because I don’t believe smear tests are important, or that I don’t want to encourage women to attend them, let me stress that again. In fact, I would urge every single woman reading this to go right now and double-check when their next test is due, and then make an appointment, if necessary.
AGAIN WITH THE “BUT”.
I will encourage you all to have smear tests when you’re invited for them, but what I can’t – and won’t – do is tell you it’ll be easy.
And, I mean, it MIGHT be. For some women – maybe even for MANY women – having a smear test really is no big deal. It’s simple, straightforward, pain-free, and takes just a few minutes of your time, after which you can just go about your day as if nothing happened.
It’s not like that for me, though.
Because, the fact is, I suffer from severe health anxiety.
And, right now, I’m 3 weeks into what I’m told is likely to be a 6 week wait for the results of my most recent smear test.
If you’ve never experienced health anxiety – or, indeed, generalised anxiety, which I ALSO have – you can’t possibly understand what that kind of wait is like for me. In fact, you’re probably just rolling your eyes as you read this, thinking, “Six weeks is nothing – you should just be grateful you get to have this test at all.”
I got that exact reaction (Although not in those exact words) from someone I tried to speak to about this earlier this week, and it made me feel so silly that I actually deleted this post (Which I’d already started writing at the time), worried that it would just garner the same, dismissive reactions. And, of course, I AM grateful that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to have this kind of life-saving screening: I wouldn’t want to imply otherwise, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be seen to be scaremongering, or encouraging women not to have smears. So I sent the post to the trash folder, having decided that I just didn’t want to be the lone voice on the internet piping up to say, “Actually, I DO ‘fear the smear’ – and all of these lipstick smeared selfies talking about how it’s totally not a big deal, and is super-easy for everyone, have just made me feel like a complete freak for being scared of it, thanks.”
But then I cried all morning. And most of the next day. Because, the fact is, smear tests are vitally important, yes – but mental health is pretty important, too: and right now, mine is absolutely shot to hell. Every single morning during this 6 week wait, I get up early to feed the baby, and then I sit on the edge of the couch, my stomach churning with nerves, as I wait for the post to arrive. When I hear it drop through the letterbox, I literally (LITERALLY. IN THE LITERAL SENSE OF THAT WORD.) feel like I’m going to throw up.
Part of me desperately wants that brown envelope with the results to arrive, just so the wait will finally be over. The rest of me, however, has been living in fear of that moment for months now: ever since Max was born, in fact, and I knew that this smear test was the next big health-related hurdle I’d have to clear.
So I turned down all of the cervical cancer campaigns I’ve been asked to take part in, because while I absolutely agree that smear tests should be talked about, the WAY in which they’re currently being talked about – with the emphasis firmly on how very EASY they are – is not in the least bit helpful for me. I think it’s great that women are being encouraged to attend smears, but I also think the reasons many women DON’T attend smears are very valid, and that, rather than just saying, “You should go for your smear, it’ll be totally easy!” (When, in fact, the truth is that it might not be…) the health service could maybe think more about what they could do to remove those obstacles and actually MAKE it easier.
Instead, a lot of the current campaigning seems to just minimise and dismiss what can be paralysing fears for some people, and it’s left me feeling like a bit of a freak, wondering why I – and I alone, if the current publicity is to be believed – am not in and out of the nurse’s office in two minutes flat (Both of my last tests have taken a good 20 minutes, while the nurse tried various different speculums, and I lay there in a cold sweat, wishing I was absolutely ANYWHERE else…), and then getting on with my life without a care in the world.
It just isn’t like that for me.
Instead, I’ve spent the last three weeks becoming increasingly more anxious, as I wait for the results of that test. Now, I know perfectly well that even if my smear test IS abnormal, it will not necessarily mean I have cancer. I know it could just mean that I’ll require further monitoring, or treatment to get rid of the suspect cells, and that the detection and treatment of those cells could, very well, save my life. I know all that.
The thing is, though, knowing that doesn’t reduce my anxiety, because, for me, “further monitoring” would mean a continuation of the absolute hell I’m currently enduring, while I wait to find out if there’s something wrong. It would mean, at the very least, another smear test – and given that I had to spend literally MONTHS psyching myself up for the last one, and returned home in tears after it, that’s not exactly No Biggie for me. As for the treatment to REMOVE any suspect cells, meanwhile… well, all I say here is that, again, if you’ve ever dealt with health-related anxiety, you’ll know why the very thought of that has been keeping me up at night for weeks now, and why I honestly don’t know how I’d cope with it.
(If you don’t have health anxiety, meanwhile – or, you know, empathy – you’re probably too busy typing out a suitably cutting response to the start of this post to have even read this far anyway, huh?)
Here’s the thing that no one ever understands: I’m actually not afraid that I’m going to die of cervical cancer (Well, I mean, I AM, but no more than I’m worried about dying of any other form of cancer…). No, I’m worried that if the result is abnormal or inconclusive, I’ll have to continue feeling the way I do now for another few months, while I go through more testing, and more waiting for results, always with the fear that it really WILL turn out to be something serious hanging over me.
The only thing to fear is fear itself, right?
And that’s the crux of it, really: I fear fear. And, having been living with it for almost two years now, from miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, to childbirth and recovery, I’m really freaking done with fear now. I just want my life back – and, as strange as it might seem, I feel like this test is the last remaining obstacle standing in my way. If I can just get past it, I’ll be able to be me again, for the first time in months: and I’ll finally be able to start enjoying life as a mother, without this constant dark cloud of worry hanging over me. If I CAN’T get past it, though, and this test ends up leading to more tests, and more waiting … well, I honestly don’t know how I’ll cope.
To answer the obvious questions: yes, I’ve had counselling. I’ve tried medication. (Albeit only briefly: both of the psychiatrists I’ve seen feel – and I agree – that medication probably wouldn’t be a great way to treat my specific anxiety, because the side effects it can cause would likely just trigger a whole new set of fears…) I’ve made plans to go private next time, if only to minimise the wait time. (Last time my results only took 2 weeks with the NHS, so I assumed it would be the same again: I won’t make that mistake twice…) What I’ve learned from all of this, though, is that the only thing that actually works, and that helps me deal with my health anxiety, is to get concrete reassurance about whatever it is that’s worrying me. There’s no amount of mindfulness, or self-help books, or even Valium that will help me when the anxiety is at its worse: the ONLY thing that does help is being given proof that there’s really nothing to worry about.
And that’s why I’ve never missed a smear test – and, in some cases, have actually gone in early – even although I know that having one will effectively wipe out the next few weeks of my life. I still go – and I encourage other women to go, too – because I know it’s important, and also because I know that NOT going isn’t going to make me feel any better. No, if I didn’t go for my smear test when the time came, I’d STILL be stressed and anxious – the only difference is that THAT anxiety wouldn’t just last six weeks, or a few months: it would go on indefinitely, because I’d have no way of knowing whether or not my fears were actually justified.
It’s really easy to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if it makes you anxious, you just have to deal with it,” or words to that effect, but while I obviously DO “just deal with it,” and would never allow my anxiety to prevent me having screening, I also think that mental health DOES matter – and matters quite a lot, actually. And yes, I’d obviously – OBVIOUSLY – have 6 weeks of anxiety now, than end up with a disease that could easily have been prevented: that goes without saying, and I can’t stress enough how important it is to go for the screening anyway, even if it scares the bejesus out of you. (I have a feeling that people are going to want to respond to this post by saying, “Well, I’d rather have a few weeks/months of anxiety than have cervical cancer!” And I mean, yeah, so would I – which is why I always go for my smear. But just because cervical cancer is bad, it doesn’t mean that crippling anxiety is therefore good – you know? It’s preferable, yes – but it’s still debilitating and awful, and I guess that’s all I’m trying to say, here.) But these 6 weeks of anxiety – and potentially longer, should my results be abnormal – are also having a pretty negative effect on my health right now, and I know I’m not the only one who feels like that, because when I posted about my anxiety about smear tests on Instagram Stories this week, I got tons of kind messages from people saying, “Yeah, I feel exactly the same about it: write the damn post!”
So I’m writing the damn post.
I’m used to getting dismissive, and even sneery, responses when I try to talk to people about my health anxiety, and, in the past I’ve often allowed those responses to silence me, or shame me into thinking my feelings aren’t valid or important. Today, though, I’m digging this post out of the trash folder and hitting publish on it anyway, because if those responses have taught me anything, it’s that we need to talk MORE about mental health issues, not less. There’s still a huge stigma about anxiety: it’s still not taken seriously by some people, despite the massive impact it can have on the lives of those of us who suffer from it. And while I agree that we should be talking more about smear tests, and encouraging women to attend them, I also feel we should be talking about them HONESTLY, and not just pretending they’re a walk in the park, or shutting down those who are really frightened of either the procedure itself, or the potential result.
So, my name’s Amber, and I’ve been awake since 4:30am this morning, worrying that today might be the day I get those long-awaited results in the mail.
It wasn’t. Which means I’ll probably be awake at the same time tomorrow – and for three more weeks after that. I go through this every three years, and I want to talk about it honestly, because I know some of you do, too – and if you’re also going to be lying awake tonight, worrying about those results, maybe it’ll help you to know you’re not the only one.[EDITED TO ADD: After talking to me about this post, Terry called the health centre this morning to ask about my results, and was told the delay is currently EIGHT WEEKS, not the six I’d previously been told – apparently there’s such a backlog that the tests are having to be sent to the US for anlaysis. So let’s just hope there really is nothing wrong – and that I don’t develop an ulcer or something from the anxiety – because obviously, if there is, that means a two month delay in treatment, too. Awesome.]