“One in three women, don’t get their cervical screening because they’re embarrassed.” That’s what my mum told me last year as she waved a pamphlet in my face. I’m terrified of my mother, she loves me too hard, it’s why I had to get her a dog. “Are you one of the one in three?” she pressed further, looking at me the same way she did the morning after I’d got drunk for the first time. “No.” I lied easily. But I was that one in three. It’s an insane statistic, given that when diagnosed at its earliest stage, around 95% of women with cervical cancer will survive their disease for five years or more, compared with five in 100 of women when diagnosed at the latest stage.
It makes sense to just lie on your back for a few minutes while a surly nurse digs around in your lady tunnel. Yes, the ancient duckbills they shove up there make a weird squeaking noise and make you think about London Dungeon, and yes it hurts when they scrape a piece of your flesh away, and yes there’s the fear that you’ve got a weird looking vagina and the nurse might tell her friends about it (she looks the type), but that’s all nothing compared to the alternative, compared to death?
But I still didn’t go, I’d lie awake and think about it, I’d get one of those random shooting pains up my Fanny Trollope and fret about whether or not I was dying. Vaginas are weird and mysterious. We’re briefly taught at 13 that stuff is going to “change” down there, but they never really go into it, they don’t tell you how it changes. I remember a Welsh lady telling my class of 16 girls that our periods would be coming soon and not to fret, we’d merely feel a “gentle ache, and a teaspoon or so of blood”. I’d love to meet her now and describe the tsunami of womb lining that exits me once a month, and the heart attack level pain I experience dangerously close to my butt hole. I’d also like to ask her about the jelly, yes, I am going there. I want to know why nobody thought at any point of my life to inform me that a ball of jelly (akin to the glue they use to affix new credit cards to paper) would fall out of my Secret Garden every once in a while.
I remember the first time it happened, I was on a trip to China with my school when I saw it, this freakish substance, I had to buy an international phone card to call my mother. I told her, through sobs, that I might be an alien. She told me “Oh that happens to all women”. When I asked her what it meant though I could hear her shrug “ask your teacher?” before hanging up on me. My teacher was no more help: “We don’t talk about things like that Ashley” she said. Maybe she just meant Geography teachers. It wasn’t until I was brave enough to ask Twitter, well into my 20s, that I was told by a kindly nurse that the alien goop is nothing more than my body’s way of letting me know I’m fertile.
But my Geography teacher was right “We don’t talk about things like that”. We just don’t. Yes, there are women and men capable of talking about their reproductive organs freely, but not enough. If we were all super chill with our vaginas then one in three of us wouldn’t be so terrified to let a medical practitioner examine them. There’s a lot to be said of the failures in the field of women’s health, according to the British Heart Foundation: “Despite 28,000 women dying of a heart attack in the UK each year, a study has shown that women had a fifty per cent higher chance than men of receiving the wrong initial diagnosis following a heart attack.”
There are serious problems with how women are treated within medicine, I don’t know how to change the way they see our bodies or our pain. But we can change how we see ourselves, we can change how we talk about ourselves. Let me be the ice breaker, I’ve used every stupid word for a vagina I could think of, I’ve talked about the weird jelly, about my period. In these 800 or so words I’ve bared my vagina’s soul to you in the hope it’ll make at least one of you feel better, feel a bit less alone and maybe you, like me, can embrace the embarrassment, ignore the bad voices in your head and go get the smear test done.
I’d convinced myself before that it was easier not to know, but I was wrong, I eventually bullied myself into going for my smear test and like 9/10 women who do go, my test came back negative and I can now go back to worrying that my headaches are a brain tumour like everyone else.
Ashley Storrie is performing Adulting at The Counting House from 2nd August – 26th August, 20:00