Photo: Isn’t cystitis CUTE?
“Having your period does not mean you’re ill” barked our school nurse, as a hundred awkward 14-year-old girls fidgeted in their seats, the braver ones exchanging raised eyebrows and remarks. This was one in a series of puberty talks that tried to make us feel ‘normal’ about our changing bodies. A noble effort, but one that offered little comfort when I was sitting in a maths lesson, insides squirming, abdomen aching, trying to concentrate on learning basic algebra and feeling much too embarrassed to go to said nurse for a painkiller.
Yes, menstruation is normal and in no way an illness, but it can also be incredibly uncomfortable, to the point of leaving some women bedridden for a couple of days. I had a friend at uni who suffered from such bad period pains that she regularly threw up and sometimes even fainted. I have a colleague who suffers from such extreme PMS that she worries about suffering a mood swing at work and risking her professional reputation.
Living in the UK, I am incredibly privileged in terms of healthcare and access to sanitary items, and I know that menstruation for women living in poverty and in other societies is incredibly traumatic. However, even in the developed world, I can’t help feeling that there is still a problem when it comes to dealing with female-specific health issues.
The term ‘women’s problems’ has been appropriated by Western society, and particularly by men who can’t bear to acknowledge that delicate, pretty women bleed once a month. “Women’s problems” is used to brush off anything generically associated with the female reproductive system, whether physical or psychological.
In isolation, this would not be too serious. However, from personal experience I know that the trivialising of women’s health can have devastating effects. Sadly, it extends far beyond the extreme discomfort of period pains not being taken seriously.
It seems that the medical profession has also been taken in by this idea of ‘women’s problems’, no matter how serious the symptoms may be. My family learnt this the hard way when the nurse taking my mother’s smear dismissed her concerns about painful sex and bleeding between periods as ‘something that happens to women of a certain age’ (she was in her early 40s at the time) and didn’t flag for her smear to be given special attention.
That was the 4th out of 5 smears that were misread (an unrelated and very unlucky situation), and by the time my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer, it was very advanced.
Five years later, and a year after my mother’s death, I noticed a lump in my breast. I went to the GP, and within two weeks had been referred to a specialist clinic, given an ultrasound and told it was nothing to worry about.
I couldn’t help compare the speed and efficiency with which something breast-related was dealt with compared to a gynaecological issue. It seems that breasts are quite acceptable now, whereas female genitalia are still somewhat taboo and mysterious, and can therefore be dismissed more readily when they start playing up. Again, this is a problem that is deeply serious in developing countries, where cervical cancer is a huge killer due to the stigma surrounding it (it’s often misconstrued as an STI).
My frustration with the medical profession’s attitude towards women’s health was stoked once again when I started having regular sex with my boyfriend and rapidly entered a vicious cycle of thrush and cystitis. Whilst the GP was helpful in treating the symptoms, I received no support when I suggested there might be an underlying cause.
As any sufferer is aware, both of these conditions are incredibly uncomfortable, to the point of being debilitating if they’re severe. And yet, whilst I confided my suffering to my sympathetic female friends and understanding boyfriend, I felt too embarrassed to ever use them to excuse myself from classes or later work, instead clenching my teeth and dosing up on painkillers to try to get through.
When I went to my GP for what must have been the 15th time in two years (and that’s not counting the times I self-treated) and pressed upon her that I was now constantly exhausted and almost always had a cold, as well as the recurrent infections, she told me that some women are just susceptible to thrush/cystitis, and that if it was getting me down she could prescribe me with anti-depressants. Good plan GP: if you can’t solve it, going down the “hysterical woman” route is always a safe bet.
Despairing, and half-thinking I was going mad; I sought alternative therapies, something that I was pretty skeptical about. In a very roundabout way, I ended up seeing a nutritionist, who diagnosed me with systemic candida. This is not a condition that is recognized by the NHS, although it is in many other countries. It is probably one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in the UK, affecting almost solely women. It’s easy enough to get rid of once you know about it, but the fact that the mains symptoms are often an amalgamation of ‘women’s problems’ means that, predictably, the medical profession has largely ignored it, at least in the UK.
It is difficult to know how to address the fact that many women suffer in silence, to whatever extent (my mum and I being at opposite ends of the scale) due to the societal and medical attitudes towards women’s health problems.
Going back to my terrifying school nurse, who showed us horrific pictures of pus-encrusted penises to scare us into using condoms, I think that a more honest, practical approach to sex education (especially for girls but also for boys) would be a good way to start.
In addition to making teenagers write out lists of all the various STIs they could contract, it might be helpful to teach girls how to avoid and treat the much more common problems they are likely to encounter as they enter the world of sex.
Off the top of my head, girls should be taught that: cystitis can often be avoided by peeing after sex, recurrent thrush might mean you should use lube, hormones (whether your own or from the pill) can have a huge impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing and, most importantly, you should be in no way embarrassed by any of the above.
Teaching women early about the realities of the human female body in all its glory and tendency to malfunction would achieve two things. Firstly, it would help women have a better understanding of their own bodies, and therefore make them better equipped to notice when things are going wrong. Secondly, it would make women more comfortable about being pushy when raising any health concerns.
I would like to live in a world where I feel completely at ease to email my boss in and tell him I can’t come into work because I need to pee every 10 minutes and when I do it burns like a motherfucker. I would like to live in a world where I put my name on this article because I shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that my gynecological and overall wellbeing suffered for several years due to a dismissive GP. I would like to live in a world where no woman ignores bleeding, pain or any abnormal symptoms because they are too embarrassed.
As long as the phrase ‘women’s problems’ is employed with that slight blush and smirk, and as long as doctors dismiss their patients with the phrase ‘it’s just something that happens to women your age’, over half of the global population is going to be at risk of avoidable discomfort and illness.
So, if anyone is reading this and thinking there might be something wrong with their downstairs, be persistent, don’t let embarrassment get in the way and don’t let anyone dismiss your concerns as ‘women’s problems’.