International Women's Day 2018 banner

Thursday 8th March 2018 is International Women's Day. To mark it, Daloni has written a follow-up to her 2017 blog post, Let's drop the 'lady garden'. Here, she discusses why lots of little changes can make one big difference.Daloni

It’s International Women’s Day! Woohoo! Again! By now, maybe we all know that it’s 100 years since women in Britain got the vote, so for those who go to drinks receptions today is a big day for a glass of fizz and a retweet of the campaign slogan #PressforProgress.

Please excuse me if I sound cynical. I am sat here at my computer, looking at the official International Women’s Day webpage from which photos of improbably young and attractive women stare out at me. Do I recognise myself in them? Not so much.

For women like me, by which I mean middle aged and living with incurable cancer, today is business as usual. In the world of women-only cancers (let’s not forget, men can get breast cancer too) little has changed since last March and the 2017 International Women’s Day.

Last year, just like every year, more than 21,000 women were diagnosed with one of the five gynae cancers (womb, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulval) and nearly 8,000 women died. That was 58 women a day who heard they have cancer – and 21 women dying. Unless we see real change, those numbers will be as true of yesterday and today as they will be of tomorrow.

So where would I like to #PressforProgress? Although now I come to think about it, what does that even mean? Is it a button that we all get to press and then progress whooshes out, like pressing a tap for water in the ladies? Probably not.

On last year’s International Women’s Day I made a plea for women to stop talking in euphemisms. To drop the 'lady gardens', the 'women’s bits' and the 'down there's. I highlighted how this coyness leads women to ignore symptoms that could be cancer – and end up with a late diagnosis with less chance of successful treatment.

For example, I wrote about a survey showing how younger women are reluctant to go for smear tests because it is 'embarrassing'. As a result, they are missing the chance to detect cancer early – or even at a pre-cancer stage - when treatment is easier and more effective. New data this year shows that the numbers attending for screenings has sunk to a 20-year low.

No progress there then.

It’s not for lack of trying. In 2017, I was among a group of women affected by womb cancer who pressed Macmillan to include womb cancer in a poster about common cancers and their symptoms. Womb cancer is the fourth most common cancer affecting women. If it is not on Macmillan’s radar, what hope do we have of reaching every woman?

Organisations like The Eve Appeal, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Target Ovarian Cancer, Ovarian Cancer Action, Ovacome and Womb Cancer Support UK have worked tirelessly to raise awareness. Some of the resulting coverage has been quite startling. I will admit I nearly fell off my breakfast stool as I listened to an item on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme during January’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. Had I fallen down a wormhole and popped out in time to hear Women’s Hour? Nope. It was definitely the Today Programme and the woman speaking had definitely just said 'vagina'. Good job!

The Facebook blogger Peter and Jane (aka why mummy drinks) did a wonderful take on the mismatch between what women think the nurse doing the smear test is thinking versus what the nurse is actually thinking. For example, you think she is thinking, ‘Dear God, the bush on this one! Couldn’t she have, you know, got the strimmer out first?’ She is actually thinking, ‘Oooh, I really need to go to B&Q this weekend…’. It was hilarious - I made my nieces read it. 

The official IWD campaign is built around the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, which reckons that women will take 200 years to achieve equality with men at current rates of progress. Much of the mainstream conversation around this year’s International Women’s Day will centre around the #MeToo campaign, which has shone a light on sexual bullying at work.

On such a wide canvas, the link to women’s cancers might appear tenuous at first sight. I think it’s fundamental. It’s shame, secrecy and power that have allowed sexual bullying to be the norm in so many industries. The ability to lay claim to our bodies and our stories and to speak about what we are experiencing is what’s needed, not just at work but in our healthcare too.

And when I look back over the year, I think I do see progress. Maybe I am just more aware but I think I hear more grown-up women using grown-up words for their genitalia and talking about their periods, their menopause and their gynae health as if they are normal events and nothing to be ashamed of. It is not always in connection with cancer and that’s quite right. Most gynae health issues are not cancer related.

Yet all this talk counts for nothing if it doesn’t result in change. If women are still ignorant of the signs and symptoms of gynae cancer or too embarrassed to go to their doctors for tests and screening, the numbers won’t change. If anything, they will rise.

So I shall leave my cynical self-harrumphing in the corner and once again join the call to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018. I will remind myself once more that it is tiny, weeny changes that make up big changes and keep on raising awareness.

Happy International Women’s Day. See you again next year!

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