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Smear tests, commonly known as Pap smears in the U.S., are essential for the detection and prevention of cervical cancer. Unfortunately, due to a combination of embarrassment, stigma and, for some people assigned female at birth (AFAB), trauma and/or medical conditions that make the process painful, between one-third to half of all eligible people either put off or avoid getting their test done entirely. Charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust started the hashtag #EndSmearFear in partnership with Twitter in order to try and address the issues keeping people from seeking this life-saving diagnostic care.
🔊 We've teamed up with @TwitterUK to encourage supportive conversations about vaginas, cervixes and #CervicalScreening (smear tests)! This #SexualHealthAwarenessWeek join us as we launch the #EndSmearFear campaign...(1) pic.twitter.com/D0cUVAvrhh— Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (@JoTrust) September 16, 2019
ℹ️ #SmearTests aren't always easy. Fear, not understanding what the test is for and embarrassment make booking and going for a test hard. For other women, including survivors of sexual violence or those with some health conditions, it can be especially difficult. (2)— Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (@JoTrust) September 16, 2019
💬 That's why we're partnering with @TwitterUK to create a safe space to ask questions, share tips and support others. #EndSmearFear aims to normalise conversations about #SmearTests to help address some of the concerns and uncertainty that exists. (3)— Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (@JoTrust) September 16, 2019
The hashtag quickly went viral, with everyone from gynecologists to ordinary tweeters posting messages of support, sharing their own smear test stories, and encouraging people to go in and get that test they’ve been putting off.
In mid smear I ended up saying, 'I suppose once you've seen one, you've seen them all.' The nurse mumbled something and sneezed. I said, 'Sorry if mine's a bit dusty, I did have a shower this morning.' We had a bit of a laugh. It's nothing to be scared of #endsmearfear— Jane Kendall (@janekwrites) September 16, 2019
My gran died at 63 from cervical cancer so have always been aware of the importance of smear tests, it might be awkward but getting cancer is worse @JoTrust. My smear test tip is to try relax during it, I often just chat away to the nurse as if it’s not happening #EndSmearFear— HAYLEY MCQUEEN (@HayleyMcQueen) September 16, 2019
Smear tests aren't always easy but @JoTrust want to #EndSmearFear by talking more about our vaginas, cervixes and smear tests. There’s no vagina emoji but my favourite is ♈️ & my smear test tip is to tell me if you're scared. What's yours? pic.twitter.com/liSwl2JF4X— Dr Anita Mitra (@GynaeGeek) September 16, 2019
A smear test quite possibly saved my life ten years ago.— Jaki (@jakijellz) September 16, 2019
No they’re not pleasant but then a lot of things aren’t. If it saves your life, it’s worth every second of being uncomfortable.#EndSmearFear
Writer and sex educator Alix Fox shared a number of tips to help make getting a smear test easier, including asking for a smaller speculum.
Whether they make you nervous, stressed, trigger trauma, or you merely see them as an inconvenient foof-based faff, no-one relishes smear tests - but they can save lives. I'm supporting @jotrust this #SexualHealthAwarenessWeek to #EndSmearFear. Read on for my #cervicalsmear tips— Alix Fox 🏳️🌈 (@AlixFox) September 16, 2019
1/ You can ask for a smaller speculum and to insert it yourself if that makes you feel more confident. Some medical centres will let you borrow a speculum to practice with at home if you explain that smears make you feel wobbly. #EndSmearFear— Alix Fox 🏳️🌈 (@AlixFox) September 16, 2019
Alix also suggested the My Body Back Project in London “for women & trans men who have experienced sexual violence where you can get a smear with teams who’ll be especially aware of your needs.”
2/ The My Body Back Project run clinics in London especially for women & trans men who have experienced sexual violence where you can get a smear with teams who'll be specially aware of your needs. STI testing & coil fitting too #EndSmearFearhttps://t.co/isek3uw2Wv— Alix Fox 🏳️🌈 (@AlixFox) September 16, 2019
4/ Lesbians & women who sleep with women need smear tests too - regrettably, their needs are often overlooked or misunderstood by healthcare professionals. @LGBTPartnership are working to put this right & spread accurate info - https://t.co/QoofM4WQIC— Alix Fox 🏳️🌈 (@AlixFox) September 16, 2019
Some users shared their stories of positive test results and what happened next to demystify the process and remind everyone what the stakes are.
So happy to see lots of #EndSmearFear posts today. Important to remember that it’s not as simple for some women. I had abnormalities & had a biopsy at Colposcopy. I shared my story with @itsbinkybee here if you wanted to hear real experiences & advice! -> https://t.co/S1jctIYa9V— Brogan (@brogantatexo) September 16, 2019
Others took the opportunity to call for more research to improve diagnostic and treatment measures, and to raise awareness of the fact that smears are painful for some people and the rhetoric about painlessness is likely to drive them away.
That is not always the case, you cannot speak for every woman. I know you mean well but that comment could prevent people from saying their concerns 😊— thegnome (@SarahDo42915774) September 16, 2019
#EndSmearFear by making sure nurses and doctors know how to help! I had the worst experience back in Southampton and a year later the nurse in Cardiff is finally getting me therapy & tests so I can have one. My drs in Southampton did nothing but threaten me!— Vicki (@missviclb) September 16, 2019
#EndSmearFear by creating robust protocols to stop nurses from overriding patients' consent mid-procedure. Or by not belittling patients who are afraid or in pain. Put the emphasis on the NHS to be better, rather than trying to tell patients to buck up and take it with a smile.— Sempronius MacDugong ⚫️ (@macdugong) September 16, 2019
There were also a number of queer and trans twitter users, as well as trans-affirming professionals, reminding people that it’s not only cis women who have cervixes and need to get smears done, as well offering advice on how to access that care as painlessly as possible.
When talking about the need to #EndSmearFear, please remember to not only address cis women but also trans people, non-binary people, basically anyone with a vagina.— ℍ𝕖𝕝𝕝 𝕊𝕡𝕠𝕠𝕟𝕖𝕣 (@spoonerwrites) September 16, 2019
When booking an appointment tell them to add a note with preferred pronouns and explain if you feel its going to affect you in terms of dysphoria. Cervical screenings are particularly painful for trans people both physically, mentally and emotionally. Self care! ❤️#EndSmearFear https://t.co/Ew1JcQw0Iu— Mel 👻 (@TheGatesOfMel) September 16, 2019
The idea of getting a smear as a trans man triggered my dypshoria to the point I almost didn't go. But the nurse was respectful, understood the challenges, and was kind. #EndSmearFear— #VeganSausageRollJesus (@Robinbequiet) September 16, 2019
If you live in london, and you're a trans guy, trans masculine, nonbinary, or anyone who has a vagina and is not a woman - get your smear tests done at @Clini_Q or @56TSoho— trans dad bod (@itsjacksonbbz) September 16, 2019
Free, trans friendly services where you won't have to worry about being misgendered ❤ #endsmearfear https://t.co/LFoquzByDm
Which Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust was quick to sign off on.
Absolutely - anyone with a cervix is eligible for smear tests and should be equally supported to attend if they choose to 🙂— Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (@JoTrust) September 16, 2019
Smear tests are free for people 25 years and older in the U.K., so if you haven’t had yours, make an appointment now. It could save your life.
Siobhan Ball is a historian, archivist, and journalist. She also writes for Autostraddle and bi.org