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
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape