I will gladly discuss my cervix to save a life.
I wish I would have been this brave, and educated, before my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer. Perhaps she would still be here if I, or someone else in her life, would have simply asked her when the last time she visited the gynecologist was.
I say this because when cervical cancer is caught in its early stages, it is treatable. Cervical cancer also is one of the most preventable cancers. That is why regular screenings, or Pap tests, are a crucial part of women’s health. Pap tests can detect abnormal cell changes that occur in the cervix years before cervical cancer even develops. Early detection truly saves lives — that’s just all there is to it.
I was 17 when my mom was diagnosed and at that age all I could think about was boys and moving away from my small hometown to pursue big city dreams at a college hundreds of miles away. It wasn’t my job to ask my mom when her last Pap test was.
It wasn’t until she was in her final stages of life that I became passionate about fighting back against this cancer that robbed me of my mom.
I was 18 when I got my first Pap test and decided that three minutes of discomfort in the stirrups is worth my life. I have talked openly and honestly about my experiences at the gynecologist and women’s reproductive health since that time, but this is the first full blog post I have written on the subject.
Nobody really wants to talk about cancers of the female reproductive system, and cervical cancer especially carries a stigma with it. Boobs are fine to discuss as a society, but the reality is breast cancer isn’t the only cancer women face.
“More than 12,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4,000 women will die. Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer for women worldwide.” (National Cervical Cancer Coalition)
I firmly believe that the more we share, the more we become aware. If more people, men and women alike, were willing to talk about cervical health as much as they talk about breasts we would see an increase in the number of women getting regular Pap tests, and ultimately the number of deaths due to cervical cancer would continue to decrease because cervical abnormalities would hopefully be caught before progressing to cervical cancer.
In true Hali fashion, it wouldn’t be a trip to the gynecologist without sharing my experience in hopes that the woman I am speaking to is inspired to call her doctor and schedule her next Pap. This time, though, the woman I am talking to about my cervix happens to be the entire Internet.
Earlier this week I went to the gyno. I don’t know about you, but I always get nervous before going to the lady-bit doctor, and this time was particularly nerve-racking because I was seeing a new doctor in a practice I have never been to. I needed to go, though, as I was actually overdue for my pelvic exam.
In my nearly 27 years of life, I have yet to experience anything more embarrassing or feel less in control than when my legs are in the stirrups and all of my lady business is on display for someone I don’t know. Like I said before, though, I would rather be uncomfortable for a few minutes once a year than put my reproductive health, and even my life, at risk.
I woke up Wednesday morning, took my dogs outside so they could use the bathroom, made a cup of coffee, watched the news — nothing out of the ordinary. I then showered and shaved my legs because, well, ya know … my new doctor was about to spend a decent amount of time down there.
Giving myself ample time to find the doctor’s office, I left my house about 45 minutes before my appointment. Once I arrived at the office and checked in at the front desk (30 minutes early), I sat patiently in the waiting area among a sea of very pregnant ladies.
When my name was called, the nurse took me to an exam room and collected my weight and blood pressure before asking questions about my health history — all standard doctor stuff.
Several minutes after the nurse left the room, my new doctor arrived. She is a younger woman and for whatever reason her presence made me feel so much more comfortable.
We made small talk before the main event. She asked if I use contraception. I told her no. She asked if I am a smoker. I told her no. She asked if I exercise regularly. I told her yes-ish. She asked how much caffeine I consume a day. I told her two-ish cups.
Personally, I prefer a nice steak, baked potato, and a glass of wine before stripping down for someone, but asking about my preferred method of birth control will do I suppose.
When she was finished with her questions, and done laughing at the lies I told for answers (yeah right, like I only drink two cups of coffee a day), she stepped out of the exam room so I could undress and put on the fashionable gown the nurse laid out for me.
That’s right, ladies, you must remove everything — even your bra and panties — and make sure your trendy hospital gown is worn so that it is open in the front for easy access.
I make myself laugh at the gynecologist because, well, I am me and I make myself laugh regularly, but also I always fold my clothes up in a neat little pile and make sure my panties and bra are hidden so the doctor doesn’t see them when she comes back in the room. That makes so much sense, right? Yes, allow me to shield you from my underwear when your face is about to be eye-level with my vagina.
I undress quickly, hop up on the exam table, and lay a sheet over my lap to try to preserve any modesty I might have left at this point.
After several more minutes of waiting, the doctor comes back in. It is now time for the exam to begin.
She makes more small talk as she extends the stirrups and asks me to lie back on the table and place my feet in the contraptions. Now, there I am, trying to keep my knees together because I think it hides my lady parts. It doesn’t, but it makes me feel better about my legs being in the air.
Side note: There should always be a nurse or another healthcare provider in the room with your doctor during a pelvic exam. It protects you and the doctor from any possible misconduct allegations. I have never had a pelvic exam and not had a nurse in the room with the physician at the time.
She begins with a breast exam to check for any abnormalities in the breasts, underarms, and the area just below my clavicle. Personally, I prefer not to make eye contact with my doctor during this time, but it happens and I just have to roll with it.
After the boobies are thoroughly checked, she moves down south. She tells me to let my knees gently fall to the sides and asks me to scoot my bum down until I feel the edge of the table. Basically, when you feel like you might fall off, you’re in the correct position.
During a Pap test, a device called a speculum is gently inserted to open the vagina to allow the doctor to view the cervix and upper vagina. This tends to be the most uncomfortable part of the exam because it creates a lot of pressure on the vagina. Once the doctor can see the cervix, a “broom” device or a brush/spatula combination is used to collect cells. While the technique is a little different depending on the device chosen, in general, the provider will gently rotate the device in the endocervix (the cervical canal) and the ectocervix (the portion of the cervix extending into the vagina) to collect cells. The cells are sent to a laboratory where they are prepared and evaluated under a microscope. (National Cervical Cancer Coalition)
I didn’t have a stopwatch going, but this part of the exam truly felt like it took less than one minute from the time the speculum was inserted to the moment she said “done.”
I do want to pause to I mention that I have several friends who are afraid to go to the gynecologist because of previous trauma in their downstairs region. It hasn’t fallen off my radar that not all women are the same and what I describe as “discomfort” could actually be excruciatingly painful for another woman. Still, I encourage all women to go and get checked out, or at least have a conversation with their gynecologist about the fear they have.
After the Pap, my doctor did a bimanual exam, which means she placed two fingers inside my vagina and used her other hand to gently press down on my lower abdomen on the area she was feeling to check for abnormalities in my reproductive organs. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s something we ladies must deal with to ensure healthy hoohas.
When my doctor finished this part of the exam, I was able to sit up while she washed her hands and made notes on the computer before leaving the room one last time. When she was gone, I hopped off the table, cleaned myself up with a wet wipe, got dressed, and headed toward check-out feeling proud and accomplished for all the adulting I had just done.
And that, friends, is the end of my gyno story.
If you have hung with me to this point, you are the real MVP as I am fully aware that parts of my recounting are graphic and unappealing. I want women to know that yes, a pelvic exam can be frightening but it doesn’t have to be. Also, there is nothing wrong with talking about these exams or these body parts. We’re women, we have vaginas, so what? Taking care of our bodies — from breasts to baby-makers — is an important part of being a woman. It’s just the hand we were dealt — men got prostates; we got vaginas, uteruses, and ovaries.
I hope you found as much humor in this post as I found in my actual visit to the gyno, but I also hope you learned something from it. And, I hope it motivated you to make an appointment to see your gynecologist. Remember, a healthy cervix is a happy cervix, ladies.