Art: Kimberlee Kessler

It took me a couple of years to get a pap smear after my first sexual partner. I was scared – as we all are – of what I knew would be an uncomfortable, possibly painful checkup of a very private area of my body.

Eventually, I booked one in. The actual process was faster and less traumatic than I expected, and I felt relieved when it was done. That was it for another few years, I thought. I thought wrong.

When I went back, my doctor told me that abnormal cells had shown up on my pap smear, likely caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) – which I also had present.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. According to The Australian Health website, it’s very common, and very infectious. Most people with one of the virus strains won’t even know it’s present, although some strains cause genital warts.  Whatever strain I had was likely causing the cell changes in my cervix – changes that can lead to cervical cancer. 

I’d had one sexual partner.

Because they were classified as high grade changes, I was told I should book in to see a gynaecologist. I did so, and on my first visit had to have a biopsy – where they nick a little section of your cervix with the abnormal cells, then send them to a lab for further testing to confirm the pap smear results. That was uncomfortable.

I then went back for those results. Not great – the cells were definitely high-grade, meaning they were precancerous. My gynaecologist recommended a LLETZ procedure – a day surgery where I went under general anaesthetic as she used a heated wire loop to burn out the abnormal cells on my cervix.

The surgery went well, but involved a week of recovery and no swimming or sex for a few weeks after that. Since then, I’ve had to return for a cervical cancer screening every year – because every year, my cervix shows either HPV or low-grade abnormal cells – ones they don’t need to remove, but need to keep an eye on.

I tell you all of this because I know so many women who have either never had a cervical cancer screening, or delay theirs by years and years. It’s no fun, sure. But you don’t want to be one of the women who finds out that what was a bout of HPV and some low-grade abnormal cells has turned into cancer – a cancer you could have prevented had you gotten regular checkups. 

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers in the world – according to Cancer Australia, it’s estimated that 913 new cases will be diagnosed by the end of 2021. When you compare that to over 20,000 new cases estimated for breast cancer, those are pretty good odds. But that low rate is due to amazing developments in screening – the pap smear was replaced with a cervical cancer screening in 2017, which is even more effective at finding abnormalities.

Also, if your cervical cancer screening comes back clear, you don’t even have to go for another five years. If it comes back with HPV or abnormal cells, you’ll thank your lucky stars you had it done in the first place.

I don’t love my yearly screenings, but I’m so thankful we have the opportunity to get them done in this country easily, affordably and regularly. I won’t take that – or my health – for granted. This week is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week – it’s the perfect time to gather your courage, book your cervical cancer screening, and commit to regular checkups for life.

For more information, head here.