Let’s Talk… Cervical Screenings, Colposcopies & More.
My cervical health story…
A while ago I did something quite out of the ordinary for me and shared an Instagram post I wouldn’t usually have; an update on my cervical health. I debated sharing it so many times and if I hadn’t have received so many incredible, thoughtful messages from you lot, I think I probably would have deleted it – I’m a pretty private person, and knowing that something so intimate was going to be seen by so many people was terrifying!
In the end I thought that even if it helps one person, that would be enough – if it encourages someone to book a smear test, it would be worth the slight embarrassment my end. In actual fact, it did more than that. It opened up a conversation that lead to me receiving hundreds of helpful and reassuring messages, I really think my LLETZ procedure was bearable because I’d had so many messages of support, and it made me want to delve in to the topic on my blog too.
I wanted to share my story with you because if it wasn’t for all those messages, I would have felt so alone and scared. Throughout my entire experience I chatted a lot to my friends about what was going on, but none of them had ever had the LLETZ procedure done, although a couple of them had had a colposcopy. I chatted a lot to kind women over Instagram and it was really reassuring, so I decided to share the entire journey with you guys in the hopes that I could make the experience a little more bearable for anyone else going through it too!
My experience lasted a little over a year in total, it started with my regular three year smear test and from there I was called in for another smear six months later. After that I was asked to attend a colposcopy and then finally I had a procedure to remove the abnormal cells, which I had done in June. I’ve broken it all down for you so hopefully it’s a little easier to digest!
The Smear Test Itself
In the UK, women (/anyone with a uterus) are invited to book and attend a cervical screening every three years from the age of 25. The smear test involves a nurse taking a small sample of cells from your cervix to test for small cell changes that may later lead to cancer.
My own first smear test was uneventful, I wasn’t overly nervous and I remember the experience being over before I had time to process it. I was called in to a room at my GP surgery and the (lovely, bright and breezy) nurse asked me how I was, gave me a bit of a rundown of the procedure and then got me to move towards the bed while she pulled the curtain around me. While she got set up on the other side of the curtain, she asked me to remove my jeans and underwear and get up on the bed.
Once I was up and settled, she asked if I was ready, before coming through the curtain to explain how to position myself – you sit with your knees to the side and the bottoms of your feet together. Admittedly, it’s slightly chilly and rather exposed, but I always remind myself that the nurse is very much used to seeing vulvas day in, day out!
I have the same nurse each time and, even with my smears three years apart, she always remembers me! I find talking distracts me and so I chat the whole way through, usually about holidays and where I want to travel to next.
The nurse uses a tool called a speculum (which has lubricant on it), which she slowly inserts in to the vagina (usually they ask you to take a deep breath so you relax in to it). For me, this is ever so slightly uncomfortable – more in that I can feel it, I’m aware that there’s a phallic-shaped item inside of me, and it stings a little bit. From here, the nurse takes a sample from the cervix – I usually can feel a slight far-away scraping. Unpleasant, but over in seconds. Finally, the nurse slowly removes the speculum and that’s it over. She moves out of the curtained-off area, you can give yourself a bit of a clean up, get dressed and finish your conversation before leaving. For me, it takes MINUTES. I always leave feeling a bit like “oh, that was it?” – but I will say that I have never had any past trauma or anything, so my experience may be different from others. I know not everyone finds smear tests easy, but mine have always been uncomplicated.
I usually go home and have a tea and a biscuit to perk myself up, sometimes I do feel a bit tearful afterwards I guess from how quick it all happens – I sort of need to process it, but mostly I’m fine straight away.
The Results & Abnormal Cells
My first ever smear was fine, but after my second one last year I was told I would need to return for another six months later. I wasn’t worried at all, in fact I didn’t realise that once I got the letter inviting me for the 6 month follow up smear I almost completely forgot about it – and of course I only remembered to book it at the most random times, so it ended up being well over six months before I booked the appointment. I was mortified when the nurse mentioned it at the hospital at the time of my colposcopy! I suppose we all feel a bit invincible in our twenties don’t we? I just didn’t feel like it was anything to worry about.
Nevertheless, I attended a third smear around nine months later and waited for my results, not really knowing what might come, but not really expecting much either. A month or two later, I got a letter through the mail saying that there had been some changes in the cells on my cervix and I’d be receiving another letter from the hospital with information about what happens next. It gave some information on how to book an appointment for a colposcopy, a procedure to examine the cervix. A few days later, I got a call from the hospital saying they’d had a cancellation and would I be able to pop in for my colposcopy that afternoon. I was a little bit confused, but said I could attend.
I asked Jordan to come with me, and so we headed for the local hospital and he waited in the waiting room while I headed in to the appointment room. The nurse asked me a few questions related to my health, whether I had bleeding in between periods or after sex, if I was on contraceptives and the date of the first day of my last period. She also asked if I’d had information about the procedure, and a letter with the details of the biopsy. I said I hadn’t, and they seemed upset about this. The letter and the information actually came the next day, I guess it’s because I got a cancelled appointment – it meant I didn’t get the details in time and I feel like because of the way it all panned out, I wasn’t very prepared for what was to come.
The nurse explained that they would do a biopsy at the same time as the colposcopy, just to check up on the cell changes. They asked me to remove my underwear and jeans, sit in the chair with my legs on the footrests and place the sheet over myself. I had the curtain pulled around me, but the nurse and doctor still chatted to me as I got ready.
Once I was seated, the doctor came through and adjusted the seat and explained what she was going to do, I would say the colposcopy itself was mostly like a smear. I chatted a lot during this so I didn’t really focus on it too much, but when the biopsy came around it felt pretty uncomfortable – a sort of scraping that stung, but the upside was that it was over quick. It was a bit intense and I felt a bit woozy and I was cramping when I stood up too.
I was left to get dressed but the staff were lovely and chatted through to me to check I was okay. They passed me a sanitary towel, and explained that I’d have discharge over the next week or so. They also gave me a bit more information on what to expect, as well as what I could and couldn’t do.
I was already experiencing mild cramping, which the nurse said was to be expected, but I felt okay. I left the room and went to meet Jordan. I began to feel tearful and tired, and a bit faint too – we were planning to go to the shop but I ended up just going home. I had a tea and a biscuit when I got back because I felt a bit of discomfort still and I thought it would perk me up. I think I was in shock a little –
I knew I was going in for a colposcopy, but I didn’t know about the biopsy, which I found the most uncomfortable out of the entire process – even now after having the LEETZ procedure I still think the biopsy was the worst part of it all!
I don’t think I was mentally prepared for it in some ways, so it was probably more the mental anguish – I wish I’d talked it over a bit more with my friends or just told myself that it was something worth preparing for.
The side effects from the colposcopy and biopsy were bearable; I had a lot of interesting discharge for a few weeks after, as well as a bit of bleeding. I had a bit of discomfort too, but nothing unbearable. I also felt quite anxious for the results, but that soon went away when it sunk in that I wouldn’t know for around 8 weeks.
My LLETZ Procedure
After almost nine weeks of waiting, I got my results through from my colposcopy.
My results were CIN2 (abnormal cells) and it was advised that I have a procedure to remove them. I had an appointment at the local hospital the following week, and also included was a letter explaining the procedure, called a Loop Diathermy or LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone).
In this treatment, an electrical wire loop is used under local anaesthetic to remove the abnormal cells and seal the area at the same time. The loop allows cells to be lifted from the area to be tested. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous for my LLETZ procedure, I found the biopsy quite tough and this was to be even more invasive – although, on the upside, it is done under local anaesthetic.
My appointment started out in a similar way to my colposcopy; I sat in the hospital room with the doctor while she asked me a few questions. She told me the area she was to remove from my cervix was a little bit bigger than her thumbnail. It wouldn’t change anything for me day-to-day but I should tell the doctor if I ever became pregnant – this kind of surprised me, I’m not sure why. I just thought it was one of those things that I wouldn’t have to think of again!
Next I got in to position on the chair and the nurse stuck an earth wire to my leg as my feet were going to be off the ground and the procedure requires electricity. I’d just had metal plates put in my wrist a few weeks before and this was the first time I was actually worried about them, but the doctor did reassure me that it’s usually (!) fine. Thankfully, it was fine but I did keep wondering about it throughout! A good distraction, if nothing else.
One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that before the LLETZ, I felt quite worried about the procedure – more so than the colposcopy. I’d done some research and it did seem like quite an invasive procedure, so it was weighing on my mind.
I had decided to open up about it on my Instagram stories, I guess I was looking for support and words of encouragement. Your messages of your own personal experiences were so comforting! I went in to that appointment feeling quite at ease – it’s incredible how much talking about it helped.
Admittedly, the procedure is a bit of a blur. I’m not sure if it was uncomfortable or painful – I guess not, I don’t remember it and I’m sure the anaesthetic would have worked its magic. I’m sure I do remember a bit of discomfort, but the whole thing was over really quick.
After the doctor removes the area of abnormal cells (usually a few centimeters in size), they need to cauterize the wound to create a scab. This helps to heal the area, stop the bleeding and reduce the chance of infection. This means you can’t exercise, have sex or use tampons etc. for around two months afterwards – you don’t want to knock the scab or risk an infection.
After the procedure, the doctor asked if I had any trips abroad planned. I told her I was going to New York the following month and she said that I should watch closely for infection because it counts as a pre-existing medical condition (shady!) and so if I was to need treatment for an infection while I was out there, I couldn’t claim on my insurance for it. The doctor was so helpful and she even ended up giving me antibiotics to take just incase, which saved me a lot of worry down the line!
I went to my appointment on my own, and afterwards I felt okay when I was leaving but I did start to get tearful on my way home – and as soon as I got in, I lay down on my bed and had a little cry. I have no idea why this is, but I just felt a bit overwhelmed – I guess it was the shock! I felt better afterwards than I did after my biopsy/colposcopy anyway.
The doctor had said that I may experience some cramping, bleeding and discharge over the next month or two, but the only time I was to worry was if the discharge had a bad smell, which was a sign of infection and I should start on the antibiotics.
I was actually okay for the first week, I thought I’d got off lightly! Around the end of week one, I started to get the weirdest discharge – it was like water, but a LOT of it. Seriously, it felt a bit like I had wet myself at times!
This continued on for a week or so, and around the week and a half mark I started to worry that maybe I had an infection. It was not pleasant! I looked on the Jo’s Trust forums and it did seem quite common. I really didn’t want to take the antibiotics as I was off on a work trip to France the following day, followed by New York the week after. The antibiotics sounded quite intense and I was worried about side-effects (I try never to take antibiotics, they always give me all sorts of issues!) and I couldn’t drink while on them (around three weeks) which didn’t work for me heading off to the land of rosé heh. I remember standing in my bedroom clutching the antibiotics and going back and forth on whether or not I should take them. I could just imagine heading off on a work trip to France and then getting a lovely bout of thrush thanks to the antibiotics! I decided to give them a miss, which thankfully worked out fine. I don’t think I had an infection in the end, just some very unpleasant side-effects.
Around this time I also started to get some heavy bleeding… I really did not have an easy time of it! Plus, I couldn’t use my usual Mooncup (or tampons) so I was stuck with massive sanitary pads! I’ve used only a Mooncup for almost a decade so I found it really, really tough to switch to pads. I felt incredibly unclean and constantly worried about leaking. I was pretty miserable.
I bled for around three weeks straight, I was still bleeding by the time we got to New York! Around this time (I think the 2-3 week mark), I began to experience seriously bad bloating, I’ve never experienced anything like this. My stomach was absolutely ROTUND, and I felt so uncomfortable – I remember being in New York and having to hold my handbag in front of myself because I was so worried someone was going to see me and think I was pregnant. I also got a lot of messages on Instagram saying “congratulations on your pregnancy!” which was… yeah.
I think this was the worst part of it all, I didn’t even really fit in my clothes! It was truly horrendous.
After three weeks of bleeding and looking 5 months pregnant, I got my period that weekend in New York and I think things started to ease up. The discharge had stopped, my stomach was doing better and after my period ended (it was definitely even heavier than usual, which was very fun in the 34 degree heat!) I was finally through the worst of it. Four weeks later!
So yes, I had a hard time with the side-effects! The aftermath was so much worse than the procedure itself. Not being able to use my Mooncup was awful and I couldn’t swim when I was away, nor could I exercise. It was a testing time!
Between my broken wrist surgery and the LLETZ procedure, I was away from the gym for about six weeks which had a big impact on me. Going to the gym is part of my routine and I just felt out of sorts not being able to go.
I actually started back at the gym about three weeks after my procedure, I did an easy workout of a light jog on the treadmill and some ab workouts, but I did notice that this is around the time the bleeding started. Silly!
I also just felt a bit alone during this time, I was away on work trips and had quite a lot of events/social occasions etc. but I felt like I couldn’t take part in a lot due to the side effects, which I found it hard to talk about when it came to why. Obviously your intimate health shouldn’t be taboo, but I did find it difficult to be open about the symptoms I was experiencing.
The final chapter…
I held off finishing this post because there was still more of the story to tell. Yesterday marked eight weeks since my procedure and, along with my period, my results arrived through the mail. I had been thinking a lot about what would be next for me, I know people have been diagnosed with cervical cancer from the results of their LLETZ procedure so it’s been at the back of my mind for two months. Although I say that – I’ve been waiting for the postman for the last few weeks, and when a letter finally arrived from the NHS I actually thought it was a letter about physio for my wrist so I missed the initial anxiety as I held it in my hands! A blessing, no doubt.
Thankfully, I got the all clear! I’m no longer required to attend anymore colposcopy appointments, only a smear in six months time. I’m so relieved that it’s good news, and I’m hopeful that my cervical story ends here.
If I hadn’t attended that initial smear test, the cell changes wouldn’t have been picked up and I may never have had the abnormal cells removed… it’s scary to think about what could have happened if I wasn’t going to my appointments.
I get it though, smear tests can be difficult – more difficult for some than others. It’s easy to shout from the rooftops that it takes minutes and it may save your life, but if you’ve suffered trauma or you haven’t had an easy time at your cervical screening appointment, it may not be such an easy feat. Nonetheless, they are important and I’m grateful we have a screening system in place.
I hope this helps anyone going through a similar experience, or even anyone worried about booking their smear. I’ll be answering questions in the comments and in my Instagram DMs so feel free to reach out if there’s anything I can answer!
And finally, thank you to every single one of you who messaged me when I was going through this – your support was so appreciated! It’s been a difficult year but I’m glad I can be open with you all.
I’ll leave a link to Jo’s Trust here as it has everything you need to know about cervical health, I relied on this site so much when I was going through this.
Much love xo.