Founder and Creator of Get Papped, Katie (she/her) sits down with us to talk about the importance of Cervical Screening Tests (pap smears) and the important of de-stigmatising sexual and reproductive health.
I started Get Papped after having an abnormal cervical screen result that left me feeling really scared. I was told by my doctor that it was a 'low grade abnormality'. I was set to be moving overseas three months after I got the result so the situation became quite stressful because I was moving to France and couldn't even order a coffee in French, let alone understand my results from a French-speaking Gynae.
Because of all this, my low grade abnormality referral was escalated. You’re often likely to wait up to a year for your referral, but mine was rushed through the private system costing me about $500. During the appointment, I had to have a biopsy. Prior to my appointment, I was researching what would likely happen. Almost everything I read online scared me, from the camera, to the cutting to even just imagining being in the gynaecologist chair. I was honestly terrified for my appointment, to the point where the receptionist had to keep coming over to comfort me as I cried in the waiting room.
A year later I had to have a follow up cervical screening, by this point I had moved to the UK. In the UK procedures like this are completely free under the NHS, I was born in the UK so I have citizenship and can access free healthcare over there. My results returned normal from this biopsy but six months later when I returned to Australia, my GP was a bit untrusting of the result from the UK.They do have different standards of care in their health system, so my doctor wanted to be 100% sure. I had another cervical screening test here which came back normal again.
I feel like I could win an award for the most cervical screenings a 26 year old has had, because I’m currently up to eight. I’ve had so many vaginal and period related issues from endo to PCOS, bleeding between sex, general period issues etc. Often doctors fall back to doing a cervical screening “just to be 100% sure”. Which is great, but I’ve definitely had seven too many screenings for my age.
Everything about Get Papped just stemmed from that abnormality and I thought we needed to start a conversation about cervical screenings. I was really scared when I got my abnormal result but I started speaking to friends and they would say 'oh yeah I have had that' or 'I had a low grade abnormality' and another friend was telling me 'oh yeah I had surgery to have cells removed'...and I thought 'what! When did you have surgery?!'
There's something wrong with how we are all feeling with cervical screening and gynaecological related health journeys and I wanted to normalise it in that sense. Cervical screening and abnormalities detected on these tests are most likely HPV (human papillomavirus) related, there's a sexual health element to it that is obviously more stigmatised than cervical screenings. I just don’t feel a sense of embarrassment for having had HPV, it’s so incredibly common.
I wanted to start something that linked back to de-stigmatising and decreasing shame around it. There is such a lack of education and resources and engaging ones at that. I went to a Catholic School - I didn't get any sexual education. I didn't know what HPV was until my doctor told me I had HPV at 21 and when I googled HPV, I read 'you have genital warts' and I was thinking 'what, no I don't, I can’t see any warts?!'. I don't think there is enough education or enough resources and I certainly don’t think they’re suited to anyone in their 20’s. I realised no one else was really doing much work on social media in this space, so I realised if no one else was going to, then I will.
I’m in a same sex relationship so I also feel really passionate about educating young queer people about the importance of having their cervical screening.
There's still doctors and clinicians out there telling queer people they don't need a cervical screening. Even when they are absolutely still at risk. Anyone with a cervix is at risk. Anyone with a cervix over 25 years old should be offered and encouraged to have a cervical screening.
There's a lot of health promotion that is useful in schools but doesn't translate beyond school aged people. How do we educate adults? There is not a lot of resources that are relevant or reach their intended target audiences. The language is important. Using language that community can understand, language that is inclusive, language that isn't terrifying and makes you close the page in fear.
I have so many ideas and improvements we need for my 'ideal world'. Firstly, I think sending a letter in the mail to notify 25 year olds to have a cervical screening, doesn't really work. Most young people have moved several times by that age and I'd have no idea what address they're sending that to (Fun Fact: It's the MYGOV/Medicare address you have registered but whether you've kept that up to date is the issue). More needs to be done to reach young people and more needs to be done to better understand young people from high level government execs. A text or email reminder would be so much better - young people barely check their letterbox unless they're expecting an online purchase delivery. I think it needs to be language that suits younger people. On the flip side, there are so many older people with a cervix that aren't keeping up with their cervical screening too.
So how do we get to the root of the issue? Which is absolute shame of female (or any body with a cervix) pleasure, sex and intimacy, vulvas and vaginas and if you add the layer of being a gender diverse person having to find an inclusive doctor who can translate their knowledge into practice.
I did an instagram poll the other day - asking people how they felt about their vulva and I asked whether anyone felt their vulva was beautiful and nobody said 'yes my vulva is beautiful'. It started a lot of interesting conversations, you know like whether beauty is the goal or can we just be content with our body, but so many people had so much shame and embarrassment - and this wasn't people expressing any body or gender dysphoria as such, just pure shame of their vulva. So when you have that as a cisgender woman is one thing. But when you identify as a gender diverse person who has a cervix and needing a cervical screen and having to find an inclusive and knowledgeable doctor is a whole new level of difficulty. To find a doctor who is aware of any extra possible considerations for trans clients such as a short course of estrogen gel prior to cervical screens, that's another thing. There is not enough GP's providing care to anyone queer. I had a recent experience where my non-regular GP who was my only option on the day refused to acknowledge my partner, just continued to refer to her as my friend throughout the consultation. Such a basic courtesy, such basic disregard.
I was nominated for the Women Empowering Others Award in 2021 for my Get Papped project . I got a copy of the nomination and read it and thought 'oh cute, I'll never win that'. But on the awards night, it was a huge event with about 300 people and the judges were older people so I thought oh I definitely won't win. I didn't write a speech despite being told to because I still didn't think I'd win. But alas, I won. I was so surprised that they were woke enough to vote for Get Papped. The award was sponsored by Soroptimist International - a pretty old school feminist charity. The lady who presented said to me "I wasn't letting anyone else win that award; what you're doing is so important, this is such an important conversation"! That'll show me for stereotyping the judges and thinking I wouldn't win. I also received an email later on from another judge who couldn't make it on the night telling me he was a 40 year old man with three daughters and a beautiful wife and that he just wanted to say that the campaign resonated with him so much and that these conversations are so important. I've always assumed a lot of cis men wouldn't want to talk about it but I've had a fair few men reach out. It's great to promote that it's not just a conversation for people with a cervix. It's opening my mind to make sure I don't exclude anybody. Why shouldn't sons ask their mums if their cervical screening is up to date?
In terms of what's next; things are tracking along nicely with Get Papped currently. I've been able to expand the practitioner directory to hundreds of practitioners which I've wanted to do but it's difficult to reach people who've had an experience that IS good enough to recommend to others. Some of those regional and remote areas are so difficult to find recommendations for. I would love to slowly expand to include New Zealand or the UK. So at the moment I'm focused on continuing to expand the directory and continue to produce and sell merchandise that helps support Get Papped as it's not funded or sponsored at all and I've had some guest appearances on social media covering other related topics. It's growing and I'm so passionate about it.
Head to Get Papped to find out more about Cervical Screening and why Katie is so passionate about it. If you are 25 and over (and never had a Cervical Screen) you are due for one. Get Papped provided a huge and wonderful 'Practitioner Directory' that lists doctors/clinics across Australia who have been recommended (by the public, no sponsorships and no bribery here folks!) for providing a stellar Cervical Screening service. Or on the flip side, recommend any practitioners/doctors you've had a positive and safe and supportive cervical screening experience with to be added to the directory!