I didn’t have my first gynecologist appointment or Pap smear until less than a month now — and I’m 23. The truth is that I was absolutely terrified of having a gyno exam—and I had no clue that I wasn’t the only one. Every time the subject came up, most of my friends would reassure me that no, having Pap smears wasn’t scary or painful. These were the same people who wore tampons every month during their periods like it was no big deal, whereas I’ve always had pain with penetration, no matter what the object is.
I was finally pushed to have an exam after weeks of excruciating pain and symptoms. Physicians had suspected endometriosis in the past and prescribed never-ending birth control. I needed answers. One of the gyno’s first questions for me was, “Have you ever had an abnormal Pap before?” I shook my head. “I’ve never had one before, so no,” I said, before warning her about the pain that the exam would probably cause me.
The fact is that so many more people have gynecological pain and fears—including Pap smears, using tampons, birth control, being pregnant, giving birth and being penetrated—than I could have imagined. And we’re stronger when we’re in this together.
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1. I survived a trauma.
“I am a survivor of rape and sexual assault many times over, and I have PTSD as a result. However, my fears got much worse about a year ago when I had a traumatic incident involving an IUD removal. It was lodged in my uterine lining and would require surgery to remove, but before they realized that, I spent almost two hours with my feet in stirrups having multiple doctors try multiple things to remove the IUD and I ended up passing out on the table from a combination of pain and anxiety. My first assault was at 18 but I remained numb to a lot of my trauma for a long time. I’d say about 5 years ago, when I got sober, my trauma and PTSD started popping up, and about a year ago after the IUD incident intensified gynecological settings.” — Arden, 34
2. I wouldn’t let doctors give me a pap smear when I needed one — and it caused me serious health issues.
“I think it mostly had to do with being a virgin. I was scared the procedure would hurt so of course it did. I didn’t have my first pap until I was in my twenties because I wasn’t sexually active. It affected my health when I had appendicitis because they wanted to do an exam when I came to the ER with abdominal pain and I refused. This led to a misdiagnosis of a UTI and meant I went home and was in pain for several more days and when I finally went back in I remember them doing an exam even though I said no, including anally. If I’d let them do an exam the first time they would have probably realized it was my appendix sooner and could have operated before it burst.” — Diane, 31
3. I’m 55 but I’ve never used a tampon.
“I’m the youngest of five kids, and when I asked my mom why I couldn’t have a baby brother, one of the things she said was that her ‘insides fell out’—an issue with her cervix. She later had cervical cancer (after having me, I mean, not after these conversations), and a hysterectomy. I was terrified of pregnancy and giving birth until I was in my late 30s—one of the many reasons I never had kids! Also, I have never used a tampon—completely grossed out by them. I’m not afraid of going to the gynecologist enough to avoid it; I am committed—because of my mother’s cancer as well as a family history of breast cancer—to keeping a close eye on my health.” — Jenny, 55
4. Having sex was always painful, so I avoided the gyno.
“I personally never liked going to the gynecologist. I always felt it to be a little uncomfortable. I always thought that I would go and they would tell me that something was wrong or that I would be pregnant. I absolutely did not like the idea of my private body parts being exposed to someone I did not know. I guess it made me feel vulnerable. Having sex was usually a painful experience for me so I didn’t exactly look forward to it and as much as I hated tampons my period was very bad which led me to having to use two pads and a tampon every time I got it. It was very uncomfortable and I hated my period whenever I got it because I knew I was going to be in a lot of pain…. Luckily now that I’ve had a full hysterectomy I don’t have to go to the gynecologist very often and it makes me happier.” — Lane, 25
5. Gynos don’t understand me personally, and I have trouble with that.
“Mainly, I fear having to explain everything about my health and history to a new person every time, and risk not being taken as seriously by this new person as by my first doctor. I have also always been a bit fearful of penetrative sex because of my pelvic pain. It’s physically uncomfortable, and has been emotionally uncomfortable to explain to partners who are quick to judge. But I’ve also come to realize that, on this whole other plane, the desire to have penetrative sex just might not personally click for me, either. The intersection of the asexuality I’m just exploring and the probable endometriosis diagnosis is probably the scariest thing to explain to people, especially when you don’t have a lot to stand on and are most eager to talk it out with someone. They [doctors] don’t know my biography and what my mental landscape is like, so they don’t have the ‘Aha!’ moments when they consider my whole life in the context of asexuality; it’s easier for them to see the two as causal, as the pain causing me to hide behind an insincere label, when really it’s a strange intersection that, looking back, I can always locate and identify.” — Marcia,28
6. I obsess on the doctor finding something wrong.
“My biggest gynecological fear is them finding something weird or wrong. I remember going in for a Pap and my doctor got really quiet and said, ‘Well that’s odd,’ and then not giving any further information for several minutes until asked. Not exactly what you want to hear from a doctor inspecting your internal lady bits. It was my third pap and they found that my cervix had inverted and flipped backwards or something weird. It hadn’t been like that the prior two years, and the nurse was like, oh yeah, this happens. But its usually flipped that way to begin with or it flips after childbirth.” — Danielle, 22
7. I found out I had Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder.
“One of the more recent times, as I was sitting there shaking and trying not to cry after the exam, my gynecologist asked me if I’d ever been raped or sexually abused because the exam was so traumatizing for me. Until she used that word, ‘traumatizing,’ it hadn’t occurred to me that it was, only because I associate that with a really extreme thing. It’s been a problem since the first time I went to the gynecologist a couple of years ago. I’d never had to go for any reason before I started having problems with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder.” — Elizabeth, 27
8. I would never go to a male doctor.
“I was horrified at the idea I’d have to get pants-less in front of a male doctor, so I started my routine of going to women. I imagine everything would be worse if I saw male gynecologists, but luckily I’ve never had to.” — Noemi, 32
9. I only get a paper smear every 5 years.
“I’ve been in pain in some form almost since puberty, so the idea of being prodded with metal instruments hasn’t exactly been high on my list of fun activities. (Then again, is it on anyone’s go to list for a good time?) Unfortunately, as part of my treatment I have to have an IUD, and insertion doesn’t exactly tickle. My gynecologist and I cut a deal that she’ll do a pap smear before each round. I know I should do it more than every five years, but she and I both know that’s not happening.” — Ash, 24
10. I tested positive for the BRCA gene.
“I’m 28 now, and about a decade ago, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They caught it very early and treated it successfully, but in the aftermath, they tested her for the BRCA mutation since she was so young when she got ovarian cancer. She came back positive, which meant that I had a 50% chance of also having the mutation…Finally, a little over a year ago, I forced myself to make an appointment to get a checkup and get tested for the BRCA gene. And, since the BRCA test came back positive (of course), it’s not a fear that really leaves. Long term, I plan to get a mastectomy & hysterectomy. For me, the stress of screening is just too high.” — Helen, 28