…So here’s the thing about pap smears: they stink. I don’t mean in a literal “what-on-earth-is-that-awful-smell?” kind of way, but in a metaphorical “you’re-going-to-put-that-thing-where?” kind of way.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, let me paint the scene. After hanging out in a waiting room with people who all look nervous and uncomfortable for half an hour, a woman built like a football player comes and tells you to come with her. She offers her name, but otherwise makes no indication that she is interested in small talk, so you follow her meekly to a room where she proceeds to asking you medically personal questions while taking your pulse and blood pressure with the gentle grace of that bagger at the grocery store who always smashes the tomatoes.
Without further ado, she tells you to strip from the waste down and cover yourself with a rather thin piece of paper and leaves you alone to follow her orders with all due haste. Since the exam table is the only place in the room covered with paper and looking suitably sanitary for a naked bum, you hop up and wait. And wait. And wait, and wait, and wait, and wait….
In the meantime, you can’t help but notice the room. The walls are painted industrial peach. The air smells heavily of disinfectant. There’s a curtain between you and the door, made of green-gray plaid. On the sink directly in front of you, the nurse has laid out the tools the doctor will need for the exam, which honestly look like a horrible set of medieval torture devices. The wall is comfortingly decorated with strange electrical boxes with wires coming out of them and labeled simply “Possible explosion hazard if used in the presence of flammable anaesthetics.” Another wall holds soothing cream-colored receptacles with the friendly label “DANGER! CONTAMINATED BIOHAZARD!”
It would be easier to bear the wait if you had thought to grab your book from your bag BEFORE you sat on the table, but you didn’t. And since the chances that the doctor will walk in at the exact moment that you’ve bent your exposed self into the air in order to retrieve said book are governed by Murphy’s Law and therefore astronomically high, you stay put.
When the doctor does eventually walk in, she’s bubbling over with cheery small talk, and you now understand the sullen nurse’s lack. Her doctor stole it all. You smile politely and try to go along with the doctor’s distraction technique, but you are not fooled. Talking to a gynecologist while she is scraping your cervix with what feels like sandpaper and roughly prodding your ovaries from both sides is not physically more difficult than replying to a dentist who has his hand halfway down your throat, but it is significantly more awkward.
The thing that really gets to me, more than anything else, is that they make me go through this every single year in order to renew my birth control prescription, regardless of the fact that research has shown that frequency to be excessive for women who have never had abnormal results. Every single year, they say to me, “Well, you can either run the risk of having a kid you can’t responsibly afford to support OR you can spend a miserable half hour being forced to contemplate your own mortality because we are that convinced that you, a perfectly healthy total stranger, make poor life choices that will lead you to develop a cancer that annually accounts for something like 0.2% of deaths in the U.S. Your call.”
These two options? They are not exactly connected in a rational way. Breast cancer causes a hundred times the deaths that cervical cancer does and is connected to patterns of child-bearing, but do they say a word about that? No. This leads me to suspect that the mandatory pap smear has more to do with high-handed displays of power and imagined moral superiority than it does with saving lives.
And this they expect me to take at face value, no questions asked. Sigh. I’ve been told by women who have had kids that once you’ve been through pregnancy, this process is no big deal, but until that distance day, if anyone has tips for surviving the assault of well-intentioned doctors with your dignity and sense of humor unbruised, I would love to hear them.