Few women actively look forward to their routine mammogram or cervical screening test, despite the knowledge that it’s absolutely the right thing to do for the good of their health.
But for Hannah, the fear and apprehension associated with these and indeed any kind of medical appointment is much worse than for many other women and men because Hannah is a survivor of Sexual Violence. She went on to develop post traumatic stress disorder during her care and treatment for breast cancer.
While she describes most of her medical care as ‘fantastic’, the routine procedures involved, such as lying down on a bed with people towering over her, or undressing for an examination without the use of a screen and people watching, feeling anxious and out of control and a lack of trauma informed care, created flashbacks. These in turn triggered off the emotional and psychological trauma and she was then diagnosed as PTSD.
Hannah, who was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, is now championing ‘trauma informed care’ for patients who have experienced physical or sexual violence in their past .
“So many survivors of abuse find it difficult and disturbing to attend screening, and many simply decide they can’t face it and don’t go at all,” said Hannah. “For those who do take the huge step and make it to their appointment, their experience can be so distressing that they don’t go again.
“I did have a cervical smear after my chemotherapy had finished, at my oncologist’s suggestion. The chemotherapy had resulted in my hair loss. I was asked to come in and sit on a chair while she talked to me, and while she locked the door. She asked me to remove my jeans and underwear and prepare for the examination. She used no screens (even though there was one in the room) and no paper towel to cover me and I had to walk across the room with her watching. Many patients may accept this as matter of routine, albeit unpleasant, but for survivors of sexual abuse, this can trigger traumatic flashbacks and unlock disturbing recollections. I have been unable to go for any successful screening since.”
Hannah also recalls she ‘blanked out’ her breast lump and took months to pluck up the courage to seek advice. She went on to have bilateral mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat the cancer. Her cancer was grade three and had spread so ultimately the delay could cost Hannah her life.
Although Hannah feels there have been many improvements in the hospitals she was treated in over the five years since she was initially diagnosed, there remains much to be done in terms of supporting and training clinical staff to be more aware of the issues facing survivors of abuse and how to adopt a more sensitive approach across the whole of the patient journey.
“It’s a massive issue for healthcare professionals and we need to address it. Only by listening to survivors and addressing the issues that matter to them will we overcome the challenges and ultimately, save lives”
Hannah currently works with Healing Our Way, a Community Interest Company that works with abuse survivors, health and care professionals to improve the quality and understanding of sexual violence and trauma, using the stories of survivors, their own words and professional input to tailor services more effectively.
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