white shirt day: why do eligible australian women forgo regular pap tests?
If you see plenty of women wearing white shirts today, it’s because it’s White Shirt Day. White Shirt Day was launched by OCRF in 2011 (with help from Witchery, and madison editor Lizzie Renkert), in order for all Australians to show their support for women suffering from ovarian cancer.
And why? One woman dies of ovarian cancer every ten hours. There is no early detection test and no cure. A pap smear does not diagnose this disease.
But do you know what I find more heartbreaking?
90% of cervical cancers can be prevented if detected early. Yet a study by the Cancer Institute of NSW recently revealed only 57.5% of eligible women get a pap test (also referred to as a pap smear). While ovarian cancer doesn’t have an early detection test, cervical cancer does, and an alarming amount of women — almost half — are failing to use it.
And why aren’t so many of us having them? Is it because we’re “busy”? Are we scared of getting cancer (because, obviously not knowing will stop it in its tracks)? Is it because we think it’s awful and painful? Are some women confused about if they need one?
I can set the latter mostly straight. If you are between the ages of 18-69, and if you have ever had sex, you need a pap test. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve had sex only once, you need one. If you’ve always used a condom, you need one. If you haven’t had sex for two decades, you need one. If you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you need one. If you’ve only had sex with the one partner and you’re also their one and only, you need one. There are no caveats or justifications. Say it with me: if you are between 18-69, and have ever had sex, you need a pap test.
To be honest, I place getting a pap smear shortly behind getting a root canal. There are plenty of people who say they find pap smears easy and painless, but I’m not one of them. I’ve spoken to my closest friends about their experience — some of them, like me, find the experience painful. Others find it vaguely uncomfortable. Others say they don’t feel a thing. Others say they find it awkward. Others say they get nervous about the results.
If you haven’t had a pap smear before, I can’t tell you what it will feel like for you. But I can tell you this: for obvious reasons, pap tests can make you feel very vulnerable, so it’s important to see someone you trust, and who makes you feel comfortable. Please remember that you can get your pap smears done by someone who isn’t your usual GP, and that you are completely in your rights to ask for a female doctor.
I also think that if we’re not one of those lucky people who claim to find a pap test no less awkward or uncomfortable than a spray tan, that we should give ourselves the day. Take the day off from uni/work/the kids. Have your appointment in the morning, and then go buy yourself something pretty or get your hair done, and then go drink some wine. Or go home to a stack of your favourite movies and a bunch of chocolate. Do things that will make you happy.
And also, as women we need to do this:
We need to share our experiences, even if they aren’t great. We need to recommend doctors. We need to remind and encourage each other to make appointments. We need to take a deep breath, pull ourselves together, and remind ourselves that it’s only once every two years.
So, today, when you see a sea of white shirts in support of those who have ovarian cancer, think about how many people are wishing there was an early detection test. And then ask yourself, would you use it?
Because, right now, we have an early detection test for cervical cancer covered by Medicare, and so many of us are ignoring it.
If you would like to talk to someone about a pap smear, or schedule one, but don’t know where to start, contact your local Family Planning Office. They are there to give you information, listen to your concerns, and can also do the test. Typing in ‘family planning’ with your state in Google, should bring up a list of nearby services.