I long told myself: get a pap test. The time between knowing I should do this and actually lying on my back, feet strapped in stirrups and spreading my legs for a doctor, took many years.
Over a decade of sexual activity with male, female and masculine-identified partners, I couldn’t muster up the guts to go to the doctor.
Some of my dearest friends have been involved with Halifax Sexual Health Centre, formerly Planned Parenthood, and Venus Envy, an award-winning sex shop and bookstore, and are passionate advocates for taking care of your bits.
Despite this good company, I was ashamed to admit I still hadn’t ever had a pap test. I was petrified – afraid of being naked, vulnerable and exposing my lack of responsibility.
I was nervous about being asked about my sexual history and queerness and admitting that I’ve been sexually assaulted. I didn’t want to talk about my body issues and confess why I hadn’t been taking care of myself.
In all of this, I had told myself that having primarily female partners didn’t put me at risk. Unlike hetero sex, I was in the clear for sexually transmitted diseases — a myth that isn’t true whatsoever, not to mention the fact cervical cancer is the second most common type of gynecological cancer in North America.
Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) and can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. It is customary for women to have regular pap tests within three years of becoming sexually active, or by the age of 21.
Cancer Care Nova Scotia states that 75 percent of women will be exposed to HPV, though few will develop pre-cancer (cervical dysplasia). According to canada.com, 1,300 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed annually. If detected and treated early, it can be cured.
Turning 30 this year has ushered in change. I’m no longer a little girl; I’m a woman, and with this comes a shift in my relationship to my body.
Mid-October I called the Halifax Sexual Health clinic and booked an appointment. I told the receptionist I was nervous, and this was my first time. She assured me I was in good hands.
When I checked into the clinic, the receptionist asked me to have a seat. I flipped through an old copy of Bust Magazine and noticed a bowl of condoms in the waiting area. Please limit yourself to five, read a little sign.
When my name was called, I took a deep breath. A robust nurse smiled and met me at the door. She took me down the hall, into her office, and closed the door.
She had an ease that immediately suppressed my anxiety. I told her I avoided the doctor as much as possible and never had a physical, let alone a pap test. Instead of asking why, or scolding me, she complimented my black dress.
I confessed my fear of my body, doctors and medical clinics. I told her I had been violated and how this further estranged me from my body. She listened closely and took in my words.
Her eyes softened, and she apologized for what had happened in the past and thanked me for booking the appointment.
I could have hugged her.
In another room, I met a doctor, who walked me through each step. She said that if the experience was too much for me to handle in one day, I could come back another time.
I felt seen, understood and taken care of. I climbed up on the table, put my red tights in a ball on a chair. I lay back, my ankles found the stirrups, and I opened my knees.
The doctor told me to take a deep breath and relax as best as possible and placed the speculum inside my vagina. She swabbed cells from my cervix with a tiny brush and small stick.
In a matter of minutes, it was all over. The doctor told me I was brave and did a great job while I was awkwardly pulling my tights up over my hips behind a curtain. I thanked her, and she said not hearing from her in the next couple of weeks was the best news I could receive.
I felt on top of the moon when I left the clinic, free of the dead weight of shame I’d had strapped to my back all these years. I celebrated. Instead of eating or taking myself for a drink, I decided to do something new, something entirely for my body. I took a beginners’ yoga class.
That night, on a thin purple yoga mat, my gaze changed and I looked inward. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply through my nose and embarked upon a new journey. I honoured and praised my body, promising to make my health and well-being a priority.
I now go for regular checkups and physicals, and I keep a diligent yoga practice. Namaste.