It was recently Cervical Cancer Screening Awareness Week, and this got us thinking - how do we mark such a week when we're not an awareness charity? Our community already understands the importance of screening, but those living with cervical cancer still have to go for 'vault smears'. But what are they?

Every year, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust's Cervical Cancer Awareness Week does an amazing job highlighting the importance of attending your cervical screenings (aka smear tests). We know that 1 in 3 women don't take up their offer to be screened and yet cervical cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women in England under 35.

We first spoke to Trekstock community member Laura a few years ago, who herself was diagnosed with cervical cancer after a routine screening and we recently caught up with her again to get her thoughts on vault screenings. First up, a refresher of her story:

Laura's story
I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 29 following a routine screening. I had put my test off for a few months due being "too busy." I was also under the illusion that I would know if I had cancer and that is exactly what I told my mum over the phone as I left my screening and told her to stop pestering me.
I hadn't shown any symptoms and even after my abnormal results, I had been told the chances of it being cancer were slim. I felt silly for even thinking it could have been, yet here I was a few weeks later hearing those four words that change your life forever "I'm sorry it's cancer."
I did not see that coming, I didn't feel ill and I didn't have any symptoms but here I was a cancer patient. 
Thanks to smear testing my cancer was caught incredibly early and I could have surgery and no further treatment would be needed. I had a total hysterectomy, yes I was losing my fertility, but I have two children and although having the option to have more taken away was heartbreaking, I have to count my blessings that I have the two I've got and I will be here to watch them grow up. 

After her treatment, Laura still attends vault smears. So what are they? It's a bit of a misleading name, but essentially they check for abnormal cells in the upper part of the vagina after a hysterectomy. During a hysterectomy, the uterus is removed, but the cervix and the upper part of the vagina (the vault) may be left behind. The vault smear test is similar to a Pap smear, but instead of collecting cells from the cervix, the medical professional collects cells from the upper part of the vagina.
Vault smears are important because you're still at risk of developing cancer*, but for obvious reasons, they can be really triggering for people who have experienced cervical cancer before. And that's why we wanted to chat with Laura...

Could you describe your feelings around these follow-up screenings?

Even though my cervix was removed, I still attend screenings and have what they call a vault smear. The first year it was every 3 months, then it dropped to every 6 months and now it's annually. I think what I found hardest is after each one I told myself it would get easier, and then the next appointment would come around and I would beat myself up for feeling just as nervous, just as anxious.

It's not just the screening, it's about being in the same place where it all started; seeing the same faces and the same hospital smell, it brings me right back to where I was 7 years ago when my life changed forever.

The first couple of follow-ups they would ask how I was and I would lie and say I was great, because in my head I was cancer free and felt that I had no right to feel anything other than grateful and happy. In reality, I really struggled. Eventually, I spoke to my consultant and my nurse and told them how anxious the appointments make me feel and they made me feel so much better explaining how it's normal to feel like that.

I always try and request a morning appointment where possible now for my screening so I don't have to wait all day. I have given up fibbing when they ask how I feel about the appointment and communicate just how worried it makes me and most importantly, I have stopped beating myself up. I give myself time to myself after my appointment, if I feel like crying I cry, if I want to hide from the world I do and I remind myself that actually even though it was 7 years ago, it's ok to not be ok about it.

What advice do you have for members of the Trekstock community who are feeling anxious about screenings - if they've experienced cervical cancer or another type?

My advice to others is to try and communicate with your family and your care team and to remember that all your feelings are valid and that everyone is different. I used to hate myself because I would see others dealing with it so much better than I was, but then I realised that we are all different and that actually I don’t know how someone is feeling behind their social media. 

What has helped you to thrive?

Since my diagnosis I have had to adjust to a new me, and only through connecting with other young people who truly get it have I been able to navigate my way through it. Now I'm here to help others through Trekstock and the amazing sessions we run bringing everyone together and connecting people who can support each other on a different level - because we get it.

* Cervical screening isn't a test for cancer, its a test to help prevent cancer.

To find out more about cervical cancer screening, including how to book, what happens at the appointment and further help & support, visit the NHS website. To learn more about the support we offer to bring people together, connecting them to others who can support them on a different level, head to our Support For You page.