‘When my first invite arrived through the post years ago, my body froze, and I then ripped it up’

Helen, who is living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and runs a peer support network for people worried about their screening test @AtYourCervix_x, blogs about how cervical screening can be a daunting and scary process for survivors of sexual assault, and her tips for making the appointment easier, for Cervical Screening Awareness Week.

I got another one after that, and that was ripped up too.

In the end I stopped reading them because I knew as soon as I opened the envelope what was inside. Sometimes it got trashed without even taking the letter and leaflet out because I knew what it would be.

A cervical screening invitation.

Occasionally a GP would mention I was behind on having a screening done during an appointment. I would tell them I’d book it on the way out, then not do it.

By the time I had my first smear test/cervical screen done, I was 10 years overdue.

Not attending a cervical screening wasn’t because I didn’t want to. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what it was or how important it was. It wasn’t because I had made an informed choice not to. It was because since the age of 21 I’ve lived with something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health issue that affects people who’ve been subjected to trauma. My trauma was sexual violence and rape in a one-off attack.

Having PTSD becomes a part of life, and since that day I’ve been able to move forward and become an advocate for women and other survivors of sexual violence, which is a real privilege.

You never forget but I’ve been able to learn to live with.

However, the one thing I was not able to overcome was attending a cervical screening, and so, I ignored it.

I am not the only person who did not attend this important preventative screening due to trauma. There is a low uptake of cervical screening, yet sexual violence against women for example is soaring.

There are many victims of sexual violence and abuse and it can be a huge barrier that stops people attending smear tests.

For someone with a history of trauma attending a cervical screening, or any gynaecological examination can be incredibly daunting, even terrifying.

Fear that we will freeze, cry, flashback, have panic attacks, not be able to cope afterward and much more can kick in.

Fear of having body parts touched that remind you of your trauma.

Fear of not being understood by the healthcare practitioner – fear of being thought of as ‘silly’ and so on …

Lots of fears – the list goes on and is unique to each person.

Attending a cervical screening as someone who has a history of trauma can be complex which is why it is important we talk about it, and I’m grateful to The Eve Appeal for giving me the opportunity to share.

It’s important that we acknowledge that for some of us attending a screening is not an easy process, and that for some of us it won’t be a quick 2-minute thing.

It can feel invalidating as a survivor of sexual violence to be told by someone who means well to ‘just get it booked/the nurse has seen it all before/it only takes 2 mins/it’s better than dying from cancer’.

It’s been great over the last few years to see cervical screening awareness campaigns become more aware of barriers that exist, of which there are many, and of which trauma is just one of.

Cervical screening is important. It can make a huge difference.

So, it’s important that we are aware of, acknowledge and address the barriers that can be faced in accessing it.

I set up @AtYourCervix_x (on Twitter) just over a year ago to offer peer support and friendship to anyone who needing it to access a cervical screening. In that time, it’s been a huge privilege to support and virtually hold hands with people from across the UK, a lot of whom who’ve experience some kind of abuse or sexual violence.

I’m not a professional, but someone who can offer a non-judgemental listening ear and sometimes a few tips that the person hasn’t thought of that might make attending a cervical screening easier.

For example –

  • Relaxation/breathing techniques
  • Telling the healthcare practitioner you have a trauma history if able, or writing it down for them if you aren’t
  • Making an appointment to discuss the screening beforehand so you can meet the nurse
  • Taking music/earphones/audiobooks
  • Knowing what the procedure process is
  • Self-care ideas (I’m a big fan of cake post smear test)
  • Being aware of different sizes of speculum and being able to ask for or suggest a smaller one
  • Wearing clothes that are comfy (I always wear a skirt)
  • Some surgeries offer one off doses of diazepam to help
  • Knowing you are in control and can say stop at any time

It’s important for survivors of sexual violence to know that they are not alone.

That survivors feel listened to and supported.

If you are a survivor of sexual violence and want to attend a cervical screening please do reach out to Eve, Jo’s Trust or AYC for support If you need it.