There’s a perception that men are the stubborn doctor-avoiders of the sexes, but women delay seeking care as well, for their own reasons. It will shock no one to find out that the main reason women avoid care is embarrassment.
A piece at The Guardian by gynecological oncologist Adeola Olaitan points to a recent UK survey, which found that one in five women think gynecological cancers are related to promiscuity, while some 40 percent think gynecological cancers have a greater stigma than other cancers.
These assumptions are baseless and we as healthcare professionals need to work harder to debunk the myths around gynaecological cancers. We need to talk more openly about the genital tract and reproductive health. We need to be able to call organs by their anatomical names, referring to the vagina, rather than to “down below”.
In addition, women need to understand that there is no association between gynaecological cancers and promiscuity.
Olaitan clarifies, as many have before, that while HPV is transmitted by intercourse or genital contact, it is “such a common virus that four out of five of us will be infected by it at some stage. It is as common as catching a cold and infection does not imply promiscuity.”
If more women understood this, Olaitan stresses, they might be more confident about reporting early symptoms that could be cancerous.
Women need to understand that all gynaecological cancers can be cured if detected early enough. They need to be aware of the symptoms of cancer, such as abnormal bleeding from the vagina (after sex, between periods or after the menopause), abdominal pain, bloating or change in bowel habit, discomfort, itching or a lump or ulcer on the vulva. While the majority of women with these symptoms will not have cancer, it is important that the appropriate tests are carried out promptly so that those with cancer can be identified and treated.
Women should not, Olaitan insists, be “literally dying of embarrassment.”
Bodily function embarrassment is par for the course for everyone, but women carry this shame disproportionately. Periods, bowel movements, gas, bad breath—it’s all part of being human, but femininity today is often synonymous with being pampered, perfumed, and groomed beyond recognition.
I shared this article with a friend who works as a nurse practitioner, who noted that embarrassment is a big hurdle for people without cancer or more serious issues, as well. She’s seen conservative, religious patients from countries in the Middle East she described as almost impossible to examine because they wouldn’t open their legs. She said symptoms like vaginal odor, discharge, or ulcers, or new bumps on the skin are all major sources of embarrassment for female patients.
“It’s like they think they will offend you with their body,” she said. But given that most of us have gotten the message one way or another that our bodies actually are quite offensive when exhibiting human traits, can you blame us?
One friend I asked admitted that she has put off doctor visits because she was supposed to lose 10 pounds and hadn’t yet, or feared her cholesterol hasn’t gotten lower when it should have. And online there are message board posts about being too embarrassed to ever go to a gynecologist, not even once.
Not that gynecologists are all necessarily big on communication. One study found that less than half ask patients about their sex lives, ostensibly an important part of the discussion for many women, and one that would set the tone to talk about some of the more embarrassing aspects of dysfunction that could prevent women from a healthy relationship with their bodies and partners.
That last part may be more key than we realize. Gynecologist Dr. Debby Herbenick told The Huffington Post that there’s a direct link between how you feel about your body—genitals specifically—and not only your sex life but also your health:
“...in our research, what we found is that women who feel more positively about their vulva and their vagina actually are open to more experiences like self-pleasuring or masturbation, they’re more likely to enjoy receiving oral sex (which is more orgasmic for many woman), and they also tend to be better about going in for an annual gyn[ecologic] exam — so things that keep them healthy, as well.”
This is both heartening and depressing. Accepting yourself could lead to better self-care on a number of levels. But on the other end of the stick, getting timely lady care may not be as simple as just knowing you should go; it’s also about actually accepting you’re good enough to be taken care of, and that your bodily functions—and dysfunctions—are nothing to be ashamed of.
Image via Fox