By RILEY CARDOZA There’s more to turning 21 than bar hopping and fake-ID tossing — it’s the year of the pap smear! Although getting your cervix swabbed may not sound like fun, the procedure checks for cancerous and precancerous cells and just might save your life. Firsts can be scary, especially when they involve a speculum and stir-ups, but don’t worry. Here are some simple ways to conquer all of your concerns about this cervical-cancer screening, straight from two gynecologists.
What to Do if You’re…
Insecure About Exposure:
It’s a little awkward being bare from the waist down with your feet in stir-ups, but remember that this view is nothing new to gynecologists. Don’t worry about hair down there; they’ve seen it all, and they know how patients feel. “It’s a really vulnerable position for anyone,” says Dr. Leah Millheiser of Stanford Health Care. “I’m a gynecologist, and it’s vulnerable for me, too.” She recommends keeping socks on and asking for an extra sheet to cover up with.
Paranoid about Pain:
Pap smears can range from uncomfortable to painful, but don’t just grin and bear it. There are steps everyone can take to ease the process. Besides asking your doctor for the smallest speculum, Millheiser recommends practicing beforehand. “Use lubricant and your own fingers, starting with one and then two, pressing down on the vaginal wall to get used to having something in there,” she says. She also advises against suffering in silence. “It’s okay to tell your doctor, ‘I can’t do this,’ and talk about maybe using dilators before your next exam.” Olivia Roos, an NYU junior, experienced this when she asked her doctor to stop during a pap smear. “I was embarrassed about speaking up,” she says, “but he told me it happens more often than you’d think.”
Dissatisfied with Your Doctor:
There’s no rule that you have to choose one gynecologist and stick with her forever. The way Roos looks at it, “If you’re uncomfortable with your doctor, get another one! You want to like the person wandering around down there.” Some women are uncomfortable with male doctors, and Millheiser endorses shopping around. “Get recommendations from friends,” she advises.
Heads up, yogis! Tensing during a pap smear only makes things harder, so bring your mindfulness off the mat and into the doctor’s office. “A lot of young women who do yoga are really aware of their bodies,” Dunham says. “If they can relax their muscles, that really helps.” If you don’t have yoga experience, don’t stress. Give Millheiser’s pelvic floor breathing exercise a try. “Take a deep breath in and as you let the air out, release the tension in your vaginal wall.”
It happens. Whether your period surprised you this month or you blanked when you scheduled the appointment, don’t worry if you’re bleeding the day of your pap smear. The exam can still be done if your cycle is on the lighter side, but keep in mind that, says Dr. Samantha Dunham of NYU Trinity. “If there’s a lot of bleeding, it’s hard to collect cells we need. In that case, you might be recalled to redo the pap at a later date.” Communicate with your doctor beforehand about whether to postpone or power through.
- Check out the procedures on websites like Mayo Clinic or Planned Parenthood so it’s not a surprise when you walk in.
- Write down all your questions. You will never embarrass your healthcare provider.
- Bring a friend or your mom the first time. Most doctors will welcome them.
- Read a book or listen to music. Don’t even focus on what’s happening down there.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Annual Gynecologist Exam:
- Be as honest about sexual and family history as possible. It’s important!
- A pelvic exam, aka a visual inspection, to check for STIs or abnormal moles.
- A pap smear, which involves a speculum and takes less than a minute.
- A bimanual exam when a doctor has fingers on the inside and outside of you to check ovary and uterus size.
- A breast exam to look for any abnormalities.
- More conversation, opening up discussions about the importance of birth control, STD testing, and the HPV vaccine among other things.