This time last year I'd barely heard of ovarian cancer. That is, until it took the life of my dear friend's sister. She was too young. It wasn't fair.
When I stopped and thought about it, I knew ovarian cancer existed but it wasn't really on my radar in the same way, say, breast cancer is - and I made a fair few assumptions about it. Surely my yearly cervical smear would take care of everything 'down there', right? Wrong. Smear tests detect cancer of the, well, the cervix. Turns out there are lots of other gynaecological cancers too.
Ok, but it IS a silent killer, right? I mean, what good will raising awareness do? Wrong again. Ovarian cancer does have symptoms. And, for the record, they are persistent bloating, persistent tummy pain, feeling full quickly/struggling to eat and needing to pee more often.
Ok, ok, but I'm only 29. I don't need to worry about this kind of thing yet do I? You guessed it, wrong again. Granted, 80% of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in women over 50 but that leaves 1 in 5 who are younger.
Fast forward a year and I'm now heading-up the press department (if you can call a one person team a department!) for the charity Ovarian Cancer Action. And when my colleagues decided we should target a campaign at younger women, I was thrilled. I'm a young woman (relative to some!) - and it's a topic close to my own heart.
So, in true PR style, I set about conducting a survey. I wanted to know whether women could identify the symptoms of ovarian cancer. I wanted to know whether women listen to their bodies. I wanted to know whether people behave as I do when faced with a potential health problem (spend an hour on google, ask my mum and make excuses about how difficult it is to get a GP appointment outside of work hours).
Out of 1000 women, those aged 18-24 said they are four times less likely to go to the doctor with a gynaecological health problem than their 55-64 year old counterparts. More than half of those said they'd initially turn to google instead. I suppose that's not too surprising, given my earlier confession. But it's saddening all the same. Hypocrite that I am, if a friend asked me about such a problem, I'd demand that she go to the doctor. Why aren't we all doing the same for ourselves?
Well, it turns out we're embarrassed. In the younger age group, 48% said they're scared of being intimately examined, 44% said they're too embarrassed to talk about sexual health issues and 26% said they didn't know what words to use. Just 17% of the younger age group say they would initially seek medical help if they suspected a gynaecological or sexual health problem, compared with 68% of the older age group, who would turn to a doctor straight away.
It makes sense actually. In my later twenties I feel much more comfortable chatting among friends about rogue nipple hairs or that time I had a scary lump in my breast (turns out it was nothing) - and my mum says the same: "Once you've had a baby you lose all dignity," she jokes. But, the thing is, it's not really that funny when you think about it. It's not funny that young girls are too shy to take their health into their own hands. And it's not funny that cancer can so often take the lives of young women because of a lack of awareness.
So, while I may be a PR writing about my own charity, this is not a shameless plug. This is my attempt to start a conversation. To reassure and empower women to take notice of their bodies and speak up if they think something is wrong. GPs may not always get it right. Hell, they're busy and under pressure - but we can look out for ourselves. Speak up for ourselves. I know next time, I will.
So, let's make a vow to listen to our bodies and to show ourselves the respect we deserve. Let's stop making excuses for not going to the doctor. Let's stop turning to the google gods. And, perhaps most importantly, let's talk about sex (ual health), baby. After all, saying vagina won't kill you. But not saying it could.