Health: Get your hands off me!

Well-woman screenings save lives but can cause untold stress.

IN HER sixties my mother used to take herself along to the clinic for cervical smears with cheerful pragmatism. She had been a doctor's receptionist for 20 years and life to her was too precious to waste through a bit of embarrassment.

In my thirties fertility problems made internal examinations a way of life. I lost count of the number of times I had had a speculum inside me. Several years ago I needed a minor gynaecological operation and insisted on having it performed under local anaesthetic because of chronic asthma. Two painful injections into the cervix were required, but I coped well and there were none of the after-effects associated with general anaesthesia.

At my next smear the doctor thought she could feel an ovarian cyst. I was referred to hospital and had a vaginal probe scan, but nothing was found. Some time later, I underwent a hysteroscopy without anaesthetic - an unpleasant experience. Finally, I developed an aversion to the speculum, seizing up every time one came near me. Even so, when the next smear became due I dutifully went along to the clinic. The sample was found to be "technically unusable". After three unsuccessful attempts to get the speculum into me, the nurse concluded that we should leave it until after my summer holiday. I have never returned, despite several reminders from my GP. When I get as far as booking the appointment I find an excuse to cancel it. Aged 49 and menopausal, I have reached a time in my life where I no longer want the intrusion of intimate examinations.

I am educated, sensible, and aware of all that medical science has to offer. Three times I have been investigated for breast lumps - thankfully all benign - because I examined my breasts regularly, and visited my GP on finding a lump. The last time, the mammograms and needle aspirations had become less shocking because I knew what was coming. But the anxiety was appalling, especially with a prolonged wait for results the third time. The consultant's advice when I was discharged was to take advantage of NHS mammograms when I reach 50.

Reason tells me to have the smears and the mammograms. But no amount of rationalisation gets me through the psychological barrier. I no longer want anyone prodding around my body, even in order to discover whether I have a cancerous tumour which, if diagnosed early, can be successfully eradicated.

A friend, Jennifer, also has a profound aversion to well-woman check- ups. Twice since she turned 50 she has been called for mammograms, and twice she has consciously rejected the offer. She knows the indefensibility of her position, but she just can't cope with the screening process. Another friend, Megan, has not had a smear for many years and has become fatalistic. Both find their everyday lives quite stressful enough without the added pressure of screening.

How many women are struggling to survive day by day with family problems, ill health or exhausting jobs and find the prospect of screening "one stress too many"? A straw poll among my female acquaintances shows that most loathe the screening process, although most are sensible enough to accept it.

Jennifer, Megan and I know that many lives are saved by mass screening. We pray that we will not pay the price for our passive resistance. We feel silly and guilty. Yet we also believe we cannot be exceptional, and that the price of the lives saved is heightened stress levels in women across the population.

Why are men not subject to the same pressure to be screened? Testicular cancer is eminently curable if discovered early. I suspect that few men check their testicles regularly, and that there would be resistance to mass screening - even though it could save lives. And, despite the certainty that screening is a good thing, I have a suspicion that many women feel objectified by the pressure to undergo it. It does not help that women are not warned when procedures can be painful. Mammograms can be at best uncomfortable, at worst agony.

The wait for results is another turn-off. If results were available on the day of screening it would eradicate the prospect of weeks or months of low-grade anxiety. But this is unlikely to happen except for women rich enough to seek private testing. Meantime, women are faced with yet another choice in a world saturated with choices, while many men appear blissfully ignorant of the responsibility for their own health.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy