Women know very little about their own anatomy and it could cost them their lives.
That’s according to a new survey by gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal, which discovered that 44% of women could not identify the vagina and 60% were unsure where the vulva was.
When shown a medical drawing of the female reproductive system, less than one third could correctly label six different parts.
To coincide with Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, the charity is calling on women to get to know their bodies better as it “may just save their lives”.
Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal, tells The Huffington Post UK: “Body confidence is important, but body knowledge is absolutely vital and our research has shown that women don’t know their vaginas from their vulvas.
“We’re imploring women to understand and be aware of what to listen out for. They need to know what’s normal for them. They need to be able to talk openly about periods, irregular bleeding and any changes that they notice to their bodies.”
The survey found that when asked to label the male anatomy, seven out of 10 women could correctly identify the foreskin, penis and testes.
By contrast, just 30% of the 1,000 women surveyed could correctly label the female anatomy.
Women aged over 65 had the least knowledge. Just under one in four could correctly label the female anatomy, which is a concern as this age group is the most at risk of gynaecological cancer.
“The lack of basic knowledge about the female body or conversations around how the female anatomy works, is extremely worrying,” says gynaecological cancer information nurse, Tracie Miles.
“How can we expect women to know what to look out for in terms of unexpected changes in their vagina or vulva or to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a gynaecological cancer, if they’re not body aware?”
Miles adds: “It is a proven fact that early diagnosis of women’s cancers can save lives, therefore it really is never too early to start educating young girls about their bodies by having frank, honest conversations with them, rather than hiding behind embarrassment or taboo.”
Globally there are one million new cases of gynaecological cancers every year and 500,000 women will die this year as a result of vulval, vaginal, cervical, womb or ovarian cancer.
In the UK, this equates to 21 mothers, wives, daughters and friends every day.
Carol Mason was diagnosed with cervical cancer aged 29, after experiencing bleeding between periods.
“I told myself there was nothing wrong despite a small nagging doubt,” she says. “I read up on the internet and persuaded myself it was nothing to be worried about.
“I felt so embarrassed about the symptoms that I didn’t want to go to the doctor. It took a lot for me to even acknowledge that something was wrong and discuss the symptoms with my mum.
“Finally, after much persuasion, I attended the doctors. Following an examination I was told to attend the hospital for a colposcopy, and reassured that due to my age it wouldn’t be anything serious.”
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In March 2008, Mason was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“To say my world fell apart was an understatement,” she says. “I was left to make decisions on my future, family and outlook that I never ever thought a 29-year-old should face, and all with the fear that I wouldn’t survive.”
Mason had a radical trachelectomy – surgery to remove part of the cervix – in May 2008.
But she soon discovered that the cancer had spread to her lymph system and chemo-radiotherapy was her only option.
She says: “I can never overstate to anyone the importance of knowing your body, knowing what is ‘normal’ or if something just feels wrong for you.
“Cervical cancer changes lives and it is vitally important that everyone knows the symptoms and are not scared of talk about the disease, see a doctor and get checked out if necessary.”