Tend to your secret garden, ladies

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose
Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

It may not be pleasant but it’s important to get your cervix scraped on the regular

Happy women’s day! In celebration, here is an article about an important, but feared topic: vaginal health. Two great ways to treat your yoni right are regular pelvic exams and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Pelvic exams are the only thing more dreaded than calculus exams. They’re uncomfortable, to be sure, but the mild and momentary discomfort is worth the reward of a muffin in fighting shape. The best thing you can do for your vagina is to have regular pelvic exams. A pelvic exam has three parts: a digital exam to check if your organs are healthy, a pap test to check for abnormal (pre-cancerous) cells and a check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), if requested. The entire exam is over in 15 minutes if you take advantage of the pap-only clinics offered by Concordia University Health Services.

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose
Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

Although students are welcome to have their pelvic exam done as part of a full check-up, Health Services also offers pap-only clinics as an extra incentive to give your Garden of Eden the attention it deserves. These clinics are designed to leave students with few excuses to avoid this essential check-up. One great reason to take advantage of this service is that a visit to the pap-only clinic guarantees seeing a female physician. Also, the physicians taking part in the pap-only clinics specialize in female reproductive health—which translates to the most efficient and comfortable exam possible.

I would be remiss not to mention that HPV while writing about vaginal health. Gabriella Szabo, health promotion specialist and nurse at Concordia’s Health Services, explained that HPV is highly contagious—in fact, 70 per cent of people will experience an infection in their lifetime. The majority of infections are asymptomatic and a healthy immune system takes care of them in a couple of years. However, some infections can produce genital warts and abnormal cells on the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer.

“Condoms can always decrease your risk of getting an STI (including HPV), but HPV can still be transmitted by parts of the genitals not covered by the condom,” said Josée Lavoie, a registered nurse at Concordia University Health Services. She recommends the HPV vaccine as the best protection. The HPV vaccine protects against the four strains of HPV that together cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers and 90 per cent of all genital warts.

While both of these conditions are highly treatable, the emotional trauma associated with diagnosis is a factor worth considering. “Getting a sexually transmitted infection is not just about getting the infection,” said Szabo. “Getting that diagnosis, it causes a lot of suffering. It’s very scary and people ascribe a lot of meaning to that. It causes a lot of distress. So getting the vaccination is an important part of helping to prevent that really negative emotional roller coaster that a person can experience with that diagnosis.”

To be sure, the stress of being diagnosed with an STI is the last thing a student needs in between presentations, papers, midterms and finals.

If the HPV vaccine is something you’re considering, the best time to do it is as a Concordia student. The university’s Health Centre charges only the cost of the vaccine, so it’s less expensive than at other clinics. Also, the health insurance offered by the Concordia Student Union (CSU) to undergraduate students covers up to 80 per cent of the cost of vaccination.

Our vaginas are something we don’t talk about enough, despite being literally the cradle of life. Whether your pink macaroon is filled with dreams, cobwebs or self-loathing, it deserves some quality attention.
Here are some questions you might be too shy to ask:

  • Who should be getting a pelvic exam?
    Any vagina owner who is sexually active or over the age of 21. Depending on your risk factors (which your health care specialist will assess), an exam is usually recommended every three years.
  • Is there a rectal exam?
    No! A rectal exam is not part of a regular pelvic exam for women.
  • How can I work up the courage to show a stranger my vagina?
    This particular stranger specializes in vaginas and has seen every permutation of genitals you can imagine. The reality is that your vagina is probably wholly unremarkable (to a physician).
  • Should I “tidy up” for a pelvic exam?
    It’s not necessary to coif your crumpet—your health is the first and only thing on a physician’s mind.
  • I’m not sexually active/I always use condoms/I am monogamous, should I still go for a pelvic exam?
    Absolutely! Many people associate pelvic exams with getting checked out for STIs. A pelvic exam also checks for abnormal cells on the cervix. If caught early, the condition can be monitored and treated. If left to linger unmonitored, abnormal cells on the cervix can progress to cancer.

So ladies, take care of your special flowers and they’ll take care of you.

1 comment

  1. You might want to look at the evidence before accepting this advice.
    The routine pelvic exam is of poor clinical value, is not a screening test for ovarian cancer and carries risk, serious risk, even unnecessary surgery. This exam was scrapped long ago in many countries.
    I think American doctors now rely on the income from the annual wellness exam, but it’s an exam FAR more likely to harm you.
    Pap testing can only benefit the small number of women (about 5%) aged 30 to 60 who are HPV+ and women can test themselves for HPV, if they choose. The new Dutch evidence backed program is 5 HPV primary tests at ages 30,35,40,50 and 60 (or HPV self testing) and a 5 yearly pap test will ONLY be offered to the roughly 5% who are HPV+
    Most women are HPV- and cannot benefit from pap testing. Women under 30 do not benefit from pap testing or HPV testing, neither is recommended in an evidence backed program. Testing young women simply leads to false positives, excess biopsies and over-treatment for no benefit, the same very rare cases tend to occur whether you screen or not. Finland and the Dutch do not test women under 30 and their results speak for themselves.
    Since the 1960s the Finns have offered 7 pap tests, 5 yearly from 30 to 60, they have both the lowest rates of cervix cancer in the world and also, refer far fewer women for biopsies etc. So this is not new evidence.
    This cancer was always fairly rare in the developed world; (0.65% is the lifetime risk) it should be a scandal that so many women have been harmed by inappropriate screening tests. (with no informed consent and often there is no consent at all)

    Population pap testing exposes women to risk from false positives, excess biopsies and over-treatment. Almost all women are HPV- and having unnecessary pap tests, biopsies etc. These procedures can damage the cervix and lead to infertility, premature babies, miscarriages, the need for c-sections and cervical cerclage etc.
    1 in 3 US women will have a hysterectomy by age 60 and many lose healthy ovaries after false positive pelvic exams, both occur at more than twice the rate of countries like the UK and Australia who don’t perform this exam. Your Dr Carolyn Westhoff, ob-gyn, partly blames the routine pelvic exam for these disturbing statistics.
    Routine breast exams are not recommended either, they are of no proven benefit, but lead to excess biopsies. I also, declined mammograms when I turned 50, the Nordic Cochrane Institute (an independent, not for profit, medical research group) has an excellent and rare summary of the evidence on their website. Over-diagnosis is a serious risk and it seems any benefit of breast screening is wiped out by those who die from cancers and heart attacks after treatments so the risks of testing exceed the benefit.

    HPV- women cannot benefit from pap testing, so I don’t have them, and all the rest is either harmful excess or optional. (mammograms – make sure it’s an informed decision) Note any doctor who tries to force you into testing should be challenged and reported, I know some doctors use coercion to force excess, refusing to prescribe the Pill until you comply. Note the Pill and pap testing are completely unrelated, the only clinical requirements for the Pill is a blood pressure test and your medical history. I was pleased to see ACOG recommend the Pill should be reduced to over the counter status, this is probably because about half of all pregnancies are unplanned in the States, hardly surprising when contraception is being used to force elective screening and harmful excess.
    STI testing – if you want to test, you don’t need an invasive exam, a simple self-swab, blood test and urine test is enough.
    I wouldn’t be following the advice in this article, it’s far more likely to lead to some very unpleasant and harmful places. If you want to protect your body, health and life, do some research and make informed decisions and yes, that might include a firm, No, thank you!

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