Some things are a given – juicing is good for you, smoking is bad for you, puppies are cute and talking about periods is yuck.
September is Gynae Cancer Awareness Month, which is over until next year and a sea of red (yep, period metaphor) turns pink (October is for breast cancer). However, campaigning, supporting, researching, providing expert information and policy work continues.
An important panel event took place mid-September. It brought together a range of informed voices to address a key question: are there taboos in women’s health? The answer from both panel and audience was a resounding YES. From periods to menopause, to ignorance around what the organs inside a woman’s pelvis are called to uttering the word discharge. Everyone in the room agreed that the stigma surrounding women’s health issues causes misery and shame, and needs to be addressed through straight-talking and proper information.
The call to action was clear: Know Your Body. Now, this might seem like a simple message but it’s vital that it doesn’t get diluted or misunderstood.
Knowing your body is about having normal conversations about all things gynae – vaginas, bleeding, smear tests. This isn’t ‘brave’, it’s NORMAL. Until we remove the shock and the ‘yuck’ factors, we can’t improve women’s health. That’s why The Eve Appeal campaigns to address the stigma and taboos that stop women talking about gynaecological cancers and their signs and symptoms.
Whilst it’s important to embrace the way our bodies look, Eve’s campaign Know Your Body isn’t about showing your body. It isn’t about being confident in a bikini, it’s about addressing the shame, embarrassment and lack of knowledge that women routinely experience when something goes wrong inside their pelvis (ovaries, womb, cervix, vagina) or between their legs (the vulva). This is body shaming of a different kind – internal, specific to women’s reproductive health and genitals.
Our research and experience of working with women affected by gynae cancers shows very clear evidence of what happens because of this shame and embarrassment. We hear on too many occasions that a woman experiences gynae cancer symptoms (it’s not OK to call gynae cancers ‘silent’ as in most cases there ARE telling signs), but delays going to her doctor and suffers in silence. She either doesn’t know what these signs might mean, or doesn’t want to talk about them. Not everyone finds it easy to talk about painful sex, changes to bowel functions or a brown discharge because an ‘it’s disgusting and embarrassing’ culture exits around gynae health. In order to end late diagnoses of gynaecological cancers, we need to end this culture.
It’s often easy to trivialise distress and discomfort (‘sex is a bit painful, but that’s probably normal at my age’) and often difficult to show our genitals to a doctor we have never met before. I have to say here that I’m a woman who is pretty confident and certainly very health aware, but going for a transvaginal scan was not my idea of fun.
Know Your Body is for young women like Lydia who spent months making her boyfriend walk behind her to check if she’d leaked blood on her clothing again (she was diagnosed with womb cancer and has had a hysterectomy. She’s 24). Or women like Carol, who have missed their last smear test because sex is so painful that the thought of a speculum is just too daunting to consider. She’s 58.
This needs to change: losing your fertility in your 20s (Lydia) and going without sex and putting yourself at risk of cervical cancer in your 50s (Carol) are wrong and avoidable.
Over the course of the next three years we will continue to lead the campaign for every woman to Know Your Body. At the heart of this is the mission that every woman should be able to name, understand, check and talk about every aspect of their gynae health – without embarrassment or shame.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health meets next month. That’s where the hard work begins. It’s about normalising the conversation for both women and men – this is critical and we’ve made a great start through our male awareness campaign. It’s about starting young – our experience says when children are young enough for the embarrassment about their bodies not to have set in. It’s about using proper language for female reproductive organs and health. Critically, it’s about engaging the commercial sector – from period product retailers to manufacturers – in a conversation about how to get information into women’s hands in a useful format.
If you’re with us and want to ride the red wave (yep, another period metaphor), please sign up for further information here: eveappeal.org.uk
Get hashtagging: #KnowYourBody. Use it wisely: this campaign is for #AllWomenEverywhere, it’s about #TalkingTaboos and normalising the conversation about all things gynae and about achieving what’s enshrined in The Eve Appeal’s strategy: making women as aware of the gynae cancers and their key signs and symptoms as they are of breast cancer.