Women: Your body parts are not dirty words. Your health and well-being are not shameful topics. And if you think that being reticent about talking about reproductive health is a problem that belongs to an older generation, think again. As a Monday feature in the Independent finds, it's actually younger women who are avoiding straight talk with their doctors — and the consequences can be serious.
An alarming recently released study by the UK organization Ovarian Cancer Action found that "Women aged 18 to 24 are four times less likely than those aged 55 - 64 to go to a doctor with a sexual-health issue." FOUR TIMES.
The statistics get worse — 57 percent of the younger women say they'd Google instead of seeking medical help and 48 percent admit they are "afraid of being intimately examined."
A full 44 percent say they're they're "embarrassed to talk about sexual health issues," and a third say would be embarrassed just to say the word "vagina" to a health professional. Only 11 percent of women 55 to 64 struggle over the same word.
Professor Christina Fotopoulou, gynecological oncologist at Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea Hospital in London, says that this level of reluctance can be dangerous. "Ovarian cancer is more common in older women but it also occurs in young women. It is crucial these women report these symptoms early to their doctors so they are given the right treatment," she says. "We as doctors should encourage women to talk to us and help them overcome their fears. It is our job and could save lives."
Why is it that in a culture that certainly seems unburdened with embarrassment about sexuality, it's younger women who are so reluctant to even say the word "vagina"? Why is it that even as "menstrual activism" is on the rise, reproductive health itself is still taboo? Perhaps because with youth comes the expectation that everything in that region is supposed to be perfect. I remember when I was in a cancer support group, a friend who was only 24 once remarked, "You don't know what it's like to be the only sick one among your peers."
Once you hit the post-menopausal years, there's much less investment in having an A+ reproductive system. The possibility of a loss of fertility is no longer relevant, and therefore no longer a stigma to face. And the implied failure that disease so often brings is somehow less of an issue when you're likelier to be among others going through the same or similar challenges.
Last week, a younger friend dropped the bombshell announcement that she was going in for major surgery and would be needing help over the coming weeks. She needed a hysterectomy. This information was communicated to a variety of people, men and women, without shame or equivocation. I admired her, not just for stating clearly that she was in need of support, but for not trying to be cagey or delicate about what she was experiencing. I admired her for the example she's setting for her kids. And what I want for all women, of all ages, is to acknowledge that our bodies are imperfect systems and to not trust Dr. Google as a substitute for authentic if difficult conversations.
"Illnesses such as ovarian cancer – which kills a woman every two hours in the UK – are much easier to treat if they are diagnosed early," says Katherine Taylor, acting chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Action. "Saying 'vagina' won’t kill you, but avoiding saying it could."