When I was a kid, I liked going to the doctor. I didn’t like the tongue depressor (quick gag reflex and a near-phobia of vomiting) nor did I care for shots (for my booster shot at age five, four grown men had to hold me down so the nurse could give me one shot), but the waiting rooms were fun, and the medicines tasted good, and I got to be the center of attention for a few minutes.
Then I turned eighteen and decided to go on birth control, and had my first pelvic exam.
I’ll not mince words: I hate PAP and pelvic exams. And when I say I hate them, I mean I’m terrified of them. I find them utterly dehumanizing. I had two okay exams, one with a certified nurse midwife in private practice and one with a male OB at a Planned Parenthood. But aside from those two okay ones, I’ve had doctors leave me splay-legged and half-naked for minutes at a time because they forgot something across the room or out in the hall or somewhere. And then there’s the thing where the nurse sets everything up and I don’t even see the doctor doing the exam until my feet are up in the stirrups. And the awesomest: Three times I’ve had doctors surprise me with a rectal exam. Even if you like people to jump out from behind furniture and throw confetti—which I don’t—this isn’t generally a fun kind of surprise. (Surprise!)
But even though I hated pelvic exams, I got them like a good girl, every year from the time I turned eighteen, because they can detect cancer and keep me from dying.
And then I found out that maybe they don’t. From the NY Times, June 30, 2014:
“The reviewers said that they could not even locate studies that had assessed whether routine pelvic exams of asymptomatic women could reduce death or disease from ovarian and other cancers, or benefit women with common benign conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or warts.”
Nope, American doctors have been putting me through a yearly humiliating exam for two decades and there’s not even any evidence supporting the practice. I have to wonder: What else are my doctors doing that’s not supported by actual evidence?
Oh! I know of another one! When I was in labor with my daughter, I had my nether regions probed by literally a dozen people, most of whom didn’t even bother to introduce themselves first, much less offer me any scientific explanation for what they were doing.
My husband could have diseases that need humiliating examinations to detect, but no one’s hounding him to bare his bottom to a stranger once a year. I wonder why that is? (That’s sarcasm. I know why that is. It’s because he’s a man and he gets to maintain his bodily integrity when there’s no reason not to.)
I’ve recently read a blog post about how doctors are bullied by their patients. I don’t doubt that this happens, but I have trouble feeling sympathy. In the doctor/patient relationship, who has the power? Nine out of ten times, I’m betting it’s the person who’s fully clothed. When I fight past the embarrassment of saying out loud that I’m having excruciating menstrual pain every month and my doctor says, “For just one or two days? I have patients who are in pain for one or two weeks around their periods,” and then he changes the subject, who’s being bullied?
So I’ve decided to opt out. Twenty years of paying someone to treat me like I’m not there is enough. If I didn’t need my thyroid prescription refilled, I wouldn’t go to the doctor at all. The least I can do is keep my pants on when I go.