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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Dealing with Pap Phobia

When was the last time you had a Pap test?

Did you know the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is not having a Pap test every two years?

We know it can often be challenging for people who are LBTQ to feel comfortable getting a Pap test. Because of a lack of acceptance or knowledge, communities and health care providers can inadvertently create uncomfortable or unsafe environments for their LBTQ patients. It's important for LBTQ individuals to find providers they trust and clinical settings that honor confidentiality. On top of all this, the cost of health care and other barriers - like a bad experience in the past - may keep us from going to see the doctor on a regular basis.

The Advocate recently published an Op-Ed called "The Lesbian Pap Phobia." The writer describes an encounter she had with a friend who had been afraid to get a Pap test, and was asking her to be her wing-person when she went for her appointment.

While I was a bit surprised by my friend’s request for me to be her wingman for her Pap test, it was an easy yes. Honestly, though, when she first started telling me her story I got pissed off. This woman has a great job. She’s generally amazing and politically astute... Except she’s 46 and she’d never had an annual exam, a Pap, any exam whatsoever that involved her genitals.

But as I listened, I realized that she was terrified. Embarrassed. She’d learned early to be suspicious of doctors; they never quite respected her queerness. She’d never been sexually active with men; she’d never sought a birth control pill prescription for contraception or as a means of managing some of the other boatload of crap that some people with a uterus can experience with menstrual cycles. Instead, she’d gotten the message so many queer women have gotten: lesbians don’t need that kind of health care. Lesbian sex is safe sex — no risk of sexually transmitted infections? And really, who wants to endure a litany of birth control questions that are too often and too aggressively paired with a women’s health checkup anyway!  So at 46, against that backdrop, she’d taken care of almost every other preventive medical intervention possible, but not the Pap test.

... Every year, approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 American women die of the disease. But, if it is detected early, the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is almost 100%.

Routine screenings for cervical cancer can detect precancerous conditions and allow health care providers to treat them before they progress. And vaccination against the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, can prevent the initial infection that leads to cancer. HPV can be passed by skin-to-skin contact. Planned Parenthood health centers provide 585,000 Pap tests and advanced testing and treatment for thousands of women with abnormal Paps and precancerous conditions.

I went with my friend to get her Pap test. The nurse and the practitioner were amazing, showing such compassion and expertise, I was so proud of Planned Parenthood. The results require a repeat Pap. I’ll be there again, no question. And I will fight with more verve and spirit than I did before. Because lesbians matter, and cervical health matters regardless of sexual orientation or sexual behaviors. Seriously.

At the 15th Annual Rainbow Health Fair on Saturday, June 29, we will have free Pap tests available for individuals of all ages from peer providers. To learn more about the health fair, Pap tests, or women's health in general - please contact YWCA Women's Health Outreach Program Manager Ingrid Berkhout at 206.461.4493 or


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