"Do you mind if I go get another nurse for a second opinion?"
That's how #MySmearStory starts. 19. Legs in stirrups in a GUM clinic in Paddington. Two women, who were later joined by a doctor, umming and ahhhing in my cervix.
I had been experiencing strange goings-on in my vagina for a while, primarily bleeding during and after sex. Not the type of bleeding where you think, 'That was a good sesh' more like the type of bleeding where you feel like Anish Kapoor's next art installation.
I had repeatedly told whoever was treating me, on the four different occasions I went to see my GP about it, that my period hasn't acted up since it arrived at 14. Something was clearly wrong - help me. Each time I was fobbed off with, 'Why don't we try you on a different pill?'
An STI test was my last port of call - I didn't know what else could be wrong. Even then I was sceptical; I'd been with my then boyfriend for over a year and was living in his house share in Brick Lane which to me was indicative of 'He would never cheat on me - we will be wed next spring'. Forgive me, I was young. Turns out he did cheat on me but that is a story for another time.
Back to the stirrups.
After two nurses and a doctors had basically excavated my vagina, they concluded I needed to go upstairs for an immediate smear test. They had seen something 'unusual'. So there was more stirrups, more 6-inch-long cotton wool buds and more affectionate taps on the knee to signal it was time to get dressed.
I remember leaving the clinic wanting to throw up. No one had really explained to me what was actually going on or told me what was wrong. Perhaps they thought I knew or perhaps they thought it was best I didn't. I called my mum straight away and she began the wave of 'It will be fine's that crashed down on me for the next month.
The long and short is that I had high risk HPV and an abnormal smear. The cells in my cervix had 'changed' which made them sound a bit like they had decided that flares weren't cool anymore and had switched to a bootleg cut. I was sent for a colposcopy within days. More nurses prodded at my insides and affectionately patted my knees when they were done. More people told me it will be fine.
I was 19 and smear tests under 25 were even less common then than they are now. This was pre Jade Goody. This was pre teaching teenagers about HPV in sex education. I knew nothing about any of what was going on - I had never been taught about any of it. When people are talking to you about dyskaryosis (cell changes), CIN 1 (Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia that covers 1/3 of the cervix) and biopsy's you just hear 'cancer'.
But I didn't have cancer. It's important to note this because I thought that smear tests were just about finding out if you have cancer or not. Smear tests are to help prevent cancer before it develops. Smear tests are actually a godsend but every women I know stills avoids them.
I ended up having laser ablation not even a week later; my body was numbed from the waist down and my abnormal cells were burnt off with a laser that made me think of nothing but Doctor Evil. After the smell of burning had gone and I had been handed enough sanitary pads to soak up an oil spill I was told for the last time, 'You'll be fine'.
And that was it. And that has been it ever since. I was fucking lucky.
I was fucking lucky because when I went for that STI test, they decided to go old-school instead of just taking blood and urine, which wouldn't have shown up anything including HPV unless I had specifically asked for it. Smear tests are avoided and not offered to women under 25 for a number of reasons - if you are reading this and under 25 and worried, demand a smear and be unashamed about it.
I was fucking lucky that I experienced that then so I could be there for my three friends who have been through the same since. I even offered to visit Doctor Evil's laser again last year, but this time my legs were firmly shut as I held my best friend's hand, distracting her with "What do you want for Christmas" in February.
So many women have a Smear Story and we should talk about them more. We need to debunk the myths around smears and talk more openly out our vaginas. Smears catch cervical cancer before it is even cancer. This week may have been Cervical Cancer Prevention week but every day is an opportunity for you to pick up the phone and call the doctors surgery who keep offering you a smear test. Stop avoiding it. You're avoiding a moment's discomfort twice a year for a lifetime of a happy, healthy vagina.
I can promise you that a smear is not embarrassing or pointless and even if there is something wrong, you'll most likely be absolutely fine.