September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month and over the next few weeks we’ll be stepping out there and talking about all things “down there” to help keep the conversation going! We’re thrilled to be kicking it off with a guest post from our friends over at the Eve Appeal.
Eleanor Calver, has recently joined The Eve Appeal and currently works alongside our Information Nurse, Tracie Miles on the Ask Eve Service. Here she discusses why she is excited and empowered talking about menstruation, vaginas and all things gynae
Working for the Ask Eve service at The Eve Appeal was my first encounter with gynaecological cancers. I vaguely knew about cervical and ovarian cancers due to the publicity surrounding Jade Goody and Angelina Jolie, however it was never fully in my consciousness.
I am not alone. Many of my friends echo similar sentiments when I prattle on passionately about my job – “I thought it was just cervical cancer”, “I didn’t even know there were 5 gynae cancers” or “what’s the difference between the vagina and vulva?”
It is worrying (although not surprising) how little we know about gynaecological cancers as well as our own anatomy.
The Ask Eve service was launched in May this year following an exploratory effort by The Eve Appeal into what women wanted. They wanted information. And they wanted it now.
But they were also too embarrassed to ask their GPs and friends for this information.
The Ask Eve service is nurse-led, free and confidential, and provides a space for women, and their friends and family, to ask questions without embarrassment. We hear from women and loved ones daily via phone, email, social media and the forum HealthUnlocked, often worried or confused, seeking specialist information on signs and symptoms, treatment and care, and genetic factors such as BRCA and Lynch Syndrome. And our Nurse Specialist is happy to answer and advise.
In supporting the Ask Eve service, I spend my days hearing a lot about vulvas and vaginas, and bleeding from vulvas and vaginas. And discharge. We mustn’t forget to speak about discharge. And if I’m not hearing about it from the women themselves, I’m reading about it. Which for some might sound a bit unpleasant. But, for me, I could not think of a better job.
As we all know people get particularly squeamish when talking about vulvas and vaginas, and especially bleeding from vaginas. This is clear with our inability to say “vagina”, “vulva”, “menstruation” or even “blood” without giggling or wincing. A recent study by Clue with The International Women’s Health Coalition found there are over 5000 euphemisms for the word ‘period’ across the world, which itself is a euphemism for menstruation!
Why are we so unable to speak about menstruation or even call our vulva, a vulva, and our vagina, a vagina? It is just biology after all (and most definitely not a luxury, however much governments worldwide would like to convince us so)!
Speaking explicitly about menstruation and our anatomy will save lives. Embarrassment is a major barrier for seeking help for gynae cancer symptoms, as well as not wanting to waste GPs’ time. Irregular bleeding is a common symptom of gynae cancers, a symptom which 71% of us have experienced. Yet, with the stigma and secrecy surrounding bleeding from vaginas, it is unsurprising people are not seeking medical advice. Remember, any bleeding between periods, during or after sex, or after the menopause should be checked out! Presenting earlier to a GP substantially increases the chance of cure. Hence, we are currently at risk of people literally dying of embarrassment.
Talking openly about our bodily functions, such as menstruation, and our anatomy will allow us to know our own normal. It is so important. It allows us to recognise when there are changes to our menstrual cycles, or unexpected discharge, or persistent bloating, and seek help.
Now, I am not suggesting you must tell the guy on the bus or your local barista all the details of your last period! There are people who are more private than others. I, on the other hand, love telling the story of how I forgot I already had a tampon inserted and then to my surprise found two in my vagina later on that day (it happens, people!). However, we must do away with the secrecy of menstruation and other gynae issues.
There is a difference between privacy (not wanting to share details) and secrecy (being told you shouldn’t share at all). Only by removing the secrecy and euphemism of gynae issues can we really know our bodies and seek help without embarrassment when something is not right.
Working for the Ask Eve Service and The Eve appeal has made me much more open, aware and unashamed about my bodily functions. I am now empowered and determined to use the correct anatomical words for vulvas and vaginas. And I am not embarrassed by my bodily functions. That is why I love my job speaking about periods, vulvas and vaginas.
If you have any concerns or questions about gynaecological cancers then please Ask Eve. The Nurse-Led Information Service can be reached on Freephone 08088020019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.