I like retro things. I would say I am a fan of them. I even have three cassette tapes tattooed on my arm. But the day a nurse casually dropped into conversation that I have a "retro cervix" and, in fact, entire uterus, I wasn’t such a fan of the idea. She said this while I was lying on a table with my legs spread and I gotta say, I felt more than a little vulnerable.
Retro is short for "retroverted." Google tells me it means "tilted abnormally backward." And in all my years of having smear tests, this was the first I’d heard of my reproductive organs being so.
The smear test, or the pelvic exam if you will, has always been a source of anxiety for me. Firstly, because I dislike having my insides raked with a gigantic cotton bud (who doesn’t?), and secondly because after one came back abnormal a few years ago, I’ve been having them every six months.
While I totally understand the importance of this, and the possible implications if I don’t, it doesn’t mean I don’t feel a fear akin to meeting a Dalek down a dark alley every time it draws near.
Recently I thought I better get my biannual scraping out of the way and so I made a date with the speculum. I was greeted by a nurse wearing a badge declaring her to be "senior," and I thought with relief that she would guide me expertly through this ordeal in no time, and then I could go to the cafe next door and reward myself with a cupcake.
We went through the usual routine — she left me in a cubicle to get undressed from the waist down and I got on the table and lay there feeling awkward, with a large sheet of tissue paper covering my lady places. It was cold. I wanted to run away. The ceiling was nondescript. I would have a chocolate cupcake, or maybe a strawberry one after this was all over.
The nurse came back, carrying the tray full of instruments that makes me instinctively squeeze my legs together in "you’re not coming anywhere near my vagina with THAT"-style protest. Then she set about her task and I set about staring upward and thinking of England. I felt the usual cold sensation and then a certain amount of rummaging before the nurse (we’ll call her Betty although I have no idea if that was actually her name) stated the ABSOLUTE OBVIOUS by exclaiming, "You’re not very relaxed. You need to try and relax more, otherwise I can’t get it in properly." I instantly became about 37 percent less relaxed, while apologizing profusely.
She took me through some breathing exercises. I held back all the expletives I had just come up with, which were about 31. A couple more excruciating minutes passed by and then the problem unexpectedly morphed into something else entirely.
"I can’t find your cervix," said Betty, sounding confused.
I raised my head off the table and glanced wildly about, as if my cervix had become offended and walked off. Then, in the absence of anything else to do or say, I began apologizing again.
"I’m so sorry, I definitely had one last time," I muttered, feeling automatically guilty that Nurse Betty was having such a hard time with the lower end of my reproductive system. There was silence while Betty poked around some more, and all discomfort was forgotten as I began praying to every higher being I could think of that my cervix would be safely located and brought home, hopefully within the next 20 seconds. It paid off.
"Here it is! Smiling away at me!" chirped Betty, sounding relieved. I privately thought that I doubted my cervix was doing anything other than sticking two fingers up at her for putting it through this sort of stress but I kept quiet, except to issue an obligatory "phew." I assumed the whole business would now be over in a matter of seconds, but there was more information to come.
"It’s retro," Betty informed me, as if she was telling me about a skirt she’d bought in 1978. "Your cervix is retroverted: tilted backward, and that’s why I couldn’t find it at first." The first real inkling of worry now entered my brain. "Is it . . . is that bad?" I asked, feeling stupid. "No, it’s a variation of normal," Betty said in such a way as to tip me over the edge into a realm of complete panic.
A variation of normal as in . . . abnormal? The involuntary worry about being able to have children that you can’t stop yourself from having once you enter your thirties still childless floated up through my mind. I crushed it down but it wouldn’t stay crushed.
After Nurse Betty was all done and had dismissed me unceremoniously and without apologizing for losing my cervix, I went home and sat and fixated on this revelation. Then I did the only sane thing I could think of — I shared my story as a status on Facebook.
Within minutes, I had a stream of private messages from women who had seen my update and wanted to share with me their own smear test woes. It seems everyone is dying to talk about what goes on behind that curtain and is just waiting for an opportunity. I had inadvertently sparked the dialogue with my tirade and conversations about uteruses would continue over Facebook for the rest of the day. It’s good to talk. And then came the icing on the cervix-shaped cake. My auntie, having seen my story come up in her news feed, messaged me.
"Looks like you have the family tilted cervix," she began and then went on to tell me that all the women on that side of the family have it. I couldn’t believe I was only finding this out now. Why had no one given me a head’s up? I had to ask her the question that had been bugging me all day — but I didn’t know how to phrase it.
"Does it have any negative implications?" I asked, which was pretty polite given that what I wanted to write was "OH GOD DOES THAT MEAN I’M BARREN" in huge letters. The answer was, reassuringly, that it’s never seemed to cause any fetus-related problems. Then my auntie uttered (well, wrote) the sentence that made the whole surreal day into the stuff of legend.
"Tilted wombs rock. Well, tilt anyway."
After our bizarre chat, I did a bit of research for myself, for my own peace of mind. Apparently, I join 20 percent of women in having a retroverted uterus (because if the cervix is tilted then apparently so is the womb), but it doesn’t usually cause problems in conception or childbirth. So should I ever choose to go down that road, the fact that my womb thinks it’s sitting in a La-Z-Boy shouldn’t be an issue. I’m mainly just a little freaked out that I didn’t know this about myself — and that something that seems so big to me could be casually dropped in conversation in the nurse’s office right before the swab goes in.
The ending to this story is of course that I have now made peace with my tilted body parts. I am still me, and it’s just a thing that is happening that doesn’t happen to everyone. Along with my left handedness, it just means that I am a little bit off balance with the majority of the rest of the world. But that’s fine.
Oh also, you’ll be happy to know that my smear test came back normal and I have been given the all clear to not return for three years. And so my retro cervix is healthy, and does indeed rock.