We've all been there: Stress-sweating (and possibly freezing), sitting with our sheet-covered legs crossed one over the other, even though we know the doctor is going to ask us to hoist them up anyway. Going to the gynecologist isn't exactly a walk in the park, but it is vital to our health.
Sadly, some women are so uncomfortable with baring it all that they're avoiding getting their Pap smear altogether, according to a new survey from the British cancer charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust.
The results of the survey (which included 2,017 British women) revealed that a concerning number of women were too embarrassed to get a Pap smear, with 35 percent claiming they were too embarrassed about their body shape, while another 34 percent felt insecure about how their vulva looked. Aside from those who were embarrassed with how they looked, another 38 percent of women were self-conscious about the way they smelled.
What do Pap smears check for?
What's the big deal, you ask? Pap smears test for cervical cancer and pre-cancerous cells that could lead to cervical cancer. If worrisome signs are caught too late — or even worse, left undiscovered — the less doctors can do to help you, which is why skipping your annual Pap is a bit like playing Russian roulette with your health.
What's even scarier: More than two-thirds of those surveyed had no idea their annual appointment was that important.
"I worried about the nurse being able to take one look at my bits and have some magic skill to be able to determine the number of sexual partners I'd had," 30-year-old Lauren Bennie admitted to the BBC. "I thought a lot about what kind of underwear and clothes to wear."
Bennie was also concerned that she may know one of the medical students who could be asked in the room to observe. But, it wasn't until she received the news that she had dyskaryosis (abnormal cells), that she realized the severity of the situation. Her results later confirmed that she had pre-cancerous cells on her cervix.
"It was terrifying," she said. "I felt angry rather than sad that I had left it so long to go for a smear test."
How to Calm Your Fears About a Pap Smear
Like many other women (including this writer), Bennie had a Pap smear that saved her life. Cases like these show why it's imperative to go to your annual appointment and get a Pap smear — whether you've shaved or not!
"You don't have to shave your legs or wax your vulva," Draion M. Burch, D.O., a board-certified ob-gyn and sexual health advisor for Astroglide, told Women's Health. "I'm not paying any attention to those things."
We know it's easier said than done, but try to remember that your doctor's main focus is your health — not your grooming "down there."
"Patients worry about how their vagina smells, but I actually worry about how their feet are going to smell," Dr. Burch continued. "When a patient is getting a Pap smear, her feet are the closest to my nose."
A few ways you can relax and get through this important, life-saving medical appointment stress-free? Practice deep, steady breathing, both during your appointment and in the waiting room beforehand. If you're really nervous, don't be shy about bringing a stress ball into the room with you to hold during the exam — or better yet, bring a friend! A supportive best friend or even a spouse may be able to help soothe your nerves, and it may make the entire experience go by faster. More tricks: Steer clear of caffeine beforehand and opt for a glass of water instead, and play a few relaxing tunes on your headphones to keep your mind occupied.
Remember: Like Bennie, you could have dangerous pre-cancerous cells and not even know it, so making sure you get a Pap smear is crucial. Next time you're thinking about skipping your appointment because you're nervous about your weight or your body or your scent, try to let go of those thoughts. Just take a deep breath — and when it's over, give yourself a pat on the back for taking an important step to protect your health.