As a writer, I recognize the power of words. My arsenal of weapons lies within 26 letters. Yet, despite my command of the English language, I never knew that one word would have the power to break my entire being. So you can imagine my shock when eight single letters was all it took to bring me to my knees from the sheer weight of my tears.
No, it wasn’t a taunt in the playground. Nor was it the cruel comeback of a spurned lover. It came from the sympathetic tongue of my own mother after I’d persuaded her to open a letter addressed to me from my doctor’s office. After attending my first ever smear test, the doctors had found an abnormal cluster of cells in my cervix.
On Friday 13th October (I know, right?), I found myself sobbing on the floor of a meeting room at my work address. Long story short: I‘d recently got around to having my first smear test and had convinced my mother to open the results whilst I was at work. I was due to go away for the weekend, and I thought it’d put my mind at rest to know right then, rather than pointlessly waiting around for a result that I believed would be an all-clear. I was all set to go about my business speculum-free for another three years. I was wrong.
My results came less than two weeks before my 27th birthday, meaning I was 26 when I had my first ever smear test. For years, I’d ignored the many letters that reminded me to book an appointment for a routine smear test. In fact, I’m fairly sure that there’s a stack of letters hidden under my bed gathering dust amongst the numerous unopened bank statements and Vogue covers.
It’s not even that I was scared to have a smear test, it was just something that kept slipping to the bottom of my never-ending to-do list. I was too busy. The surgery’s phone lines were busy. I couldn’t possibly justify the time off work with so many deadlines that week. My period was due. I didn’t want it to dampen the holiday spirit. I was fluent in pathetic excuses. After all, 9/10 women receive a normal result, so what was the rush, right? I was young, healthy, and shamefully naïve.
During the six weeks that I’d waited for these results, it had never once crossed my mind to research the implications of an abnormal result. Not for one second did I, the family hypochondriac, imagine that I would be faced with a cancer scare at just 26 years old. I was invited for a colposcopy to inspect the problem (see also: my vagina) more clearly. After the initial shock, I became more positive and convinced myself that the doctors were being overly cautious. Alas, life had a different plan for me.
Fast forward three months, and the good news is that I’ve become relatively skilled at opening my legs for a room full of complete strangers. The bad news? A biopsy showed that my cells were high-risk and pre-cancerous. I often make jokes about it, as you’ve probably noticed, because I don’t know how else to process it. Late at night, I’m more likely to accept my vulnerability and admit that it’s shaken me to my absolute core to embrace the terrifying fragility of mortality at just 27. Yet, despite all of this, I know I’m still one of the lucky ones. Even though I was foolish and immature enough to ignore the many, many requests to book a smear test, the cells are pre-cancerous, which means it’s highly treatable.
Making jokes and light-hearted comments also helps to stop me from wandering down the dark path of “what if?” Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night for thinking about what would have happened if I’d continued to ignore those letters. Admittedly, I’d often choose the lack of sleep over what awaits me in my nightmares after a particularly long day of thinking. What if I’d had another deadline that needed to be met? I don’t know what would have happened if I’d decided to wait until I came back from another one of my infamously spontaneous holidays. I shudder to think how much longer I could have played the “ignorance is bliss” card, but knowing my lack of organisation skills and busy lifestyle, I know it could have gone on for years, which could have led to a very different outcome.
This is why smear tests are important. Yes, they’re a little bit embarrassing and the whole encounter is a little bit awkward. But leaving your surgery with blushing cheeks is far more preferable than leaving a hospital clutching tear soaked pamphlets with the seemingly medieval practice of burning one’s nether regions with a laser to get rid of pre-cancerous cells. You can take my word for it.
I’ve not really spoken about my experience until now. It’s all been very private, which is how I wanted it. Maybe I’ve buried the concerns deep within the dark recesses of my mind because they’re too painful to deal with. Perhaps my blind faith in the universe has protected me from feeling too hard done by. It’s far easier to shrink my worries down and focus on the beauty of the world rather than answering the niggling questions about what all of this means for my fertility. Because how can I dare to feel sorry for myself when I’m one of the lucky ones?
And don’t get me wrong, I really do believe that I’m fortunate. I could never even pretend to know what people go through when they get the prognosis that continues to haunt my nightmares. On the good days, I exhale and silently thank my lucky stars that I’m one of the treatable ones. The bad days roll around every so often, and with them comes a high dosage of guilt. For me, the weirdest thing is that not once have I ever felt angry. Even in my darkest moments, I’ve never asked “why me?” And that’s not because I’m some kind of selfless saint, because I could write a dissertation on my selfish nature. It’s because I can’t see why it shouldn’t be me.
Nobody deserves cancer. Sometimes, the good die young. It’s one of those painful truths in life that we all have to swallow. There’s not a single reason as to why this shouldn’t have happened to me. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. That’s a fact, and whilst it’s a terrifying thought, it’s something we cannot ignore. The good news is that regular screening can prevent 7 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer. And I’m very glad that I fall into that statistic, thanks to something as simple as a smear tests.
The statistics on cervical cancer aren’t new information. Most of us are aware of them. So, why am I telling you this and sharing the story that I fought to keep private, you ask? Cervical screening rates have hit a twenty-year low, which is extremely worrying. Yet, the saddest part is that most people put off screening for the same reasons that I did. We assume that everything will be fine.
In our 20s, we think we’re untouchable, and I wish that were true. Sadly, our mortality is palpable. We’re not immortal.
Whilst we can’t change the cards that life deals us, the ace in the hole lies in our advanced and admirable medical services. Cancer screening can save lives, and I urge you all to take it seriously. A five-minute smear test might not have dealt me the hand that I wanted, but it kept me at the table. And the reshuffled deck now looks to be in my favor for the next round.