Yesterday afternoon I had the absolute pleasure of going into the Eve Appeal offices and meeting the fabulous team behind the fabulous charity. For a long time I have been looking to get the blog involved with a charity that looks specifically at gynaecological cancers because it was beginning to worry me how little we were all speaking about this incredibly important and prevalent issue. So please imagine my excitement when I cam across these guys who are working tirelessly to raise awareness and funds for all 5 gynaecological cancers.
Now, before I go on can I just ask if you can list off the 5 types of gynaecological cancers for me, without checking google?
I couldn't either, so I'll put you out of your misery: cervical, ovarian, womb, vaginal and vulva. I was, like most women, under the impression that there were only cervical and ovarian, and even though I know people who have dealt with both, I still wasn't entirely sure that they weren't the same thing.
But how is that possible? How is it that as a woman, I know SO little about something so massively important. Something that 21,000 women in the UK alone are being diagnosed with each year? Something that is actually killing 21 women, mums, daughters, sisters, friends, every DAY here. Many of whom don't know the first thing about any of these cancers until they are sitting opposite the doctor finding out that they've got it. Globally there are half a million women dying each year of one of those cancers, and that is half of the one million cases being diagnosed in that time. That's only 28,000 fewer deaths a year than from breast cancer.
But why am I depressing you with all of this? (Sorry by the way, I know it's not my cheeriest Thursday afternoon chat.) I am doing this because it only just dawned on me yesterday, chatting with the Eve Appeal, quite how important this is. Hundreds of thousands of women are dying every year from an illness that we know nothing about. That we don't know the symptoms of. That we need to start talking about. Now.
Let me tell introduce the Eve Appeal. This charity is leading a national campaign to address the stigma and taboos that stop women from knowing enough about all of these cancers, their signs and their symptoms. They say that straight talking is vital (hear hear) and that we need to start using the proper anatomical terms around gynaecological health and talking openly about common symptoms like changes to periods. They want us to stop using silly words for our vaginas and start actually calling them VAGINAS and they want us to gain better awareness in order to work towards early diagnosis.
And one of the main problems they are having with getting people to talk about these things, is that there is SO much stigma around these cancers. Of course, there is the embarrassment factor to take into account (which considering we pay strangers £40 to remove all of our pubes with hot wax every couple of months is weird), there is the fact that 'vagina' is considered a nasty word, one that we'll all do anything to avoid saying and then of course, particularly where cervical cancer is concerned, there is the association with STDs, because of HPV, a lot of people assume that cervical cancer only affects women with a long list of sexual partners. Which is of course, utter horse shit.
I actually remember having this conversation with a woman about this a few years ago who said adamantly that she didn't want her daughter to have the HPV jabs (which became available for girls aged 12 or 16 in 2010) because, and I quote, her daughter would only have sex with one person in her life, so she couldn't see the point.
Now my mum quite rightly told her that this was the most ridiculous thing ever, that you first of all cannot guarantee something like that for a 12 year old girl (hello, pressure much?) but also, that regardless of how many men a woman has sex with, it only takes one to pass on the HPV virus, because they are silent carriers. To my mind, this kind of narrow-mindedness is a huge part of the problem. After all, cancer does not discriminate.
But despite this, I do understand why the stigma is there. Ironically for mum and I, this conversation came about a few days before mum was due go to the John Radcliffe hospital for a biopsy following the finding of some unusual cells. Not wanting her to go on her own, in case it was bad news, and also cause it's a shitty thing to have to do, I decided we'd go together.
When we arrived there we were directed down the higgledepiggledy corridors to what felt like the end of the world, but was in fact just the shit bit of the hospital and by the time we got to our destination there was just one door left, labelled STD CLINIC and then in much smaller letters underneath it 'cervical cancer ward'. Not a great start for banishing the stigma eh?
Anyhoo, mum was called in and I was left to the most fascinating and frightening people watching of my life (namely because there were so many kids in there!). 20 minutes later the door swung open and mum appeared beaming from ear to ear as she half skipped, half galloped towards me. The news was obviously good and thanks to our sheer relief we didn't really get the chance to look around at our situation and realise that what this actually *looked* like, to the average person in that waiting room, was that I'd taken my mum to the STD clinic and she'd got the all clear. Which is actually fairly hilarious.
But imagine for a second if the news hadn't been good, or if my nervous mum had had to go on her own, she'd have found herself in the STD waiting room. Just because the diseases hang out in the same playground? No wonder the stigma is there. If the hospitals can't even be shown to differentiate then what chance do we stand? (I'm sure this isn't the same in every hospital BTW I'm just being a bit obtuse to get my point across).
My grannie had ovarian cancer and when my mum had that fright with cervical cancer it frightened me half to death, I knew nothing about it other than that it was fucking with my mum and I hated it for that. It was only at that time that I thought I ought to learn about it, but even now I'll be the first to say that I don't know enough. None of us do. There are way too many women being affected by these horrible cancers and it's time we started learning about it, teaching ourselves to spot the symptoms, being brave enough to talk to our doctors, to ask our friends.
Girls this really is so important, I can't say it enough. Whether you're black or white, tall or short, thin or fat, the one thing that we ALL have in common is that we have vaginas. Not 'pussys' or 'fooffs' or 'tuppances', we have VAGINAS, and we've gotta look after them, we've got to keep them safe, we've got to look after ourselves and after each other.
So I have decided that Pretty Normal Me are going to support the Eve Appeal 100% on their mission to get women to know their bodies better and banish this stigma. On the 1st September to mark the beginning of gynaecological cancer month, I am going to throw a Bubbles & Bush party to open the conversation amongst my friends and I really would love and beg for you to do the same, check out how you can get involved throughout September HERE.
In the meantime, standby for a LOT more vagina chat from me. This conversation is well overdue and I'm just itching to have it.