Today’s guest post is by Sarah Cosgrove. Sarah is currently a graduate student in Boston, Massachusetts. When she gets a moment to pull herself away from work, she’s a avid baker and explorer of the greater Boston area. You can follow Sarah on Twitter.
About a week ago I retweeted a link for Feminists for Choice’s blog post regarding pap smears and birth control. Before I retweeted, with my comment encouraging women to ignore the post and to get yearly exams, I read the post entirely and intently. Upon retweeting the link I engaged Feminists for Choice’s Serena in a hearty debate on Twitter about the post and the standard U.S. practice of yearly gynecological exams and pap smears. While I have on numerous occasions been denied renewal of my birth control because I hadn’t had my yearly exam, I was appalled that a blog for women, by women, would discourage yearly exams.
If, as women, we think about our yearly exams as a means to an end, motions we have to go through to get a birth control prescription, then we’re doing ourselves a grave disservice. I agree with the last points of the post – that birth control needs to be more readily and cheaply available – but divorcing the acquisition of birth control from open, frank, yearly conversations with our doctors about our bodies, about our sexual and medical history, and about the need for screening, is dangerous. Blanket suggestions to skip mammograms or pap smears put women in danger. A study reported in the media often leads women to follow guidelines that may not be appropriate for them. How do you know you don’t need yearly mammograms if you do not have a discussion with your doctor about your medical needs? The same goes for pap smears or STD blood tests, etc. If, after that informed conversation, you two mutually decide on a different course of action then is common, fine. But the conversation is key. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, essential and lifesaving.
I fear that a post such as this will be read by women looking for a reason or an excuse to avoid the potential awkwardness of a gynecological exam and pap smear. A few brief moments of discomfort once a year is a small price to pay to ensure your health. A gynecological exam and pap smear can help screen for cervical cancer, uterine or ovarian abnormalities, all issues that can ultimately lead to problems with fertility or painful surgical procedures.
Also, there’s more to birth control than preventing pregnancy. Birth control medication is just that, medication. It alters your body’s chemistry. The hormones in birth control may pose a threat to your health if you have certain blood disorders or other risk factors. Your OB/GYN is trained to ask about these potential hazards during an exam.
As a breast cancer survivor, one with an extensive family history of breast and ovarian cancer, I have always taken my health seriously. My annual gynecological exam is sacrosanct, as is a yearly exam by a breast specialist. Does every woman have the same medical concerns and needs as I do? Of course not. But should every woman express the same level of interest in her body, her medical care, and her need for screenings and exams? Yes, most definitely. I agree with the author of the post and with several of the comments posted regarding it, that OB/GYNs shouldn’t be allowed to hold a birth control prescription “hostage” to get women into their office for an exam and a pap smear. We are grown women, we should be able to monitor our bodies, take notice of changes or abnormalities and address them with a health professional as needed. But do we? Do we always know what to look for?
A quick poll of the women in my Twitter stream about their feelings on pap smears and gynecological exams gave me the following answers:
- I love that it gives me a chance to know my body better, to know what I need to be aware of.
- I love that my gynecologist is sensitive to queer woman and our needs.
- The exam isn’t painful, and I am comforted that it can save my life.
- My annual exam gives me a chance to talk about my sexual activity with my doctor, to know that I am taking the best precautions against STDs.
This blog is called Feminists for Choice. We all have choices in life. Ideally, we always pick what is best. But passing up an opportunity to talk to your doctor about your body, your health, because you don’t want a pap smear? Silly. More women need access to birth control. But I don’t ever want our vigor for that access to deter vital tests, or prevent in office visits that save lives. As women we are used to taking a backseat, putting our needs behind the needs of our careers, spouses, children, families. But assuming we’re on the right track and making the best choices regarding our health is different than knowing. A yearly check up with your doctor will assure you that you are making the best choices possible. That is true empowerment.