health

Let’s talk about cysts, baby.

In recent years, crippling conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovaries have become more widely discussed thanks to women such as Lena Dunham talking about their experiences. The increasing awareness of these conditions is fantastic and needs to continue, yet very often, little is spoken about their cousin – dermoid cysts.

Dermoid ovarian cysts are benign tumours made up of a collection of cells that are used to create eggs. As eggs have the ability to create any type of cells, dermoid cysts can consist of a wide range of different types of human tissue, including blood, fat, bone, hair and teeth all in one beautiful lump, and effect on average 1 in 5 women, with cysts that cause symptoms affecting 1 in 25. They can vary in size and symptoms, with some women never even knowing they have one if it remains small. They can range from being 1cm up to 75cms. My first cyst was 15cm, my new one is currently sitting pretty at 4cm.

Dermoid cysts are a recurring problem and must be surgically removed when they begin to cause problems, yet there is surprisingly little information available on them. A quick google search led me to a forum of women asking for information from each other on the issue. These were women who had had multiple cysts removed, who’d had ovaries removed and yet still had very little information on the condition. I myself had never been told that they reoccurred until another one decided to pay me a visit, but I was quickly informed when I questioned the doctors that this is incredibly common and should have been unsurprising to me.

So why am I so keen to tell you all this? Well for one, I think it’s important for all of us to know a bit more about what can go on down there, but also, I want to spread awareness of how much this can affect people’s lives when they do show symptoms.

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My first cyst was diagnosed after over a year of constant pain and tests. I had to take a year off school, and during that time I frequently cried and vomited from pain, and on multiple occasions, I was unable to move from my bed for several days at a time because of it; it really was a literal pain in the backside. I had scans of my brain and my spine – at one point they thought I had MS because the cyst was pressing on my spinal nerves and causing neurological symptoms such as my hands being unable to hold pens and cutlery. Eventually, after eighteen months (and a very perceptive trainee nurse) they found it, and I had emergency surgery. I was lucky. My surgeon was amazing and saved my ovary, but this is not the case for so many women. Many women who have dermoid cysts have had to have their ovaries removed for the sake of their health, but in turn, give up their fertility. I myself now have a life plan in place to manage the condition.

I can only speak from personal experience, but being told that I had another one devastated me. I remember practically skipping to the hospital to rid myself of this thing back in 2013 and three years later I was being told that I had to go through all that again.

I’m nowhere near where I was last time with the pain and discomfort, in fact, I can forget about it a lot of the time but then it comes back to remind me that it’s still there. I have missed meeting up with friends and going to their parties because “I have a really bad headache”, or “I just have too much work to do” whilst in reality I’ve typed that whilst curled up in a ball crying in pain desperately waiting for the paracetamol to kick in so that I can have the smallest slice of relief.

I have come to terms now with what lies ahead, I have a life plan organised with my doctors and I’m working on techniques to manage the pain (FYI – if you’re ever really frustrated it helps to watch YouTube clips of Malcolm Tucker and just let him channel your anger). Some women, as I have mentioned before, aren’t as lucky as I have been; they’ve had hysterectomies and cysts which have been much larger and more aggressive than mine. This is why I want to raise more awareness of dermoid ovarian cysts. I described my experience of my first cyst – a year and a half of pain and frustration whilst being poked and prodded – but my second one has so far been much better because this time I knew what to look out for. I went to the doctor, I got a scan and it was diagnosed early and now they are able to monitor it and largely keep it in check. I cannot express enough how much better it is to go to your doctor if you suspect anything than sit around hoping it will go away – it could be nothing, but it could be something and that’s worth finding out.

 

If you want more information about the signs and symptoms of dermoid ovarian cysts along with general gynaecological information visit the ‘Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ website.

 

Words by Eleanor Manley
Artwork by Celia Mohedano

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Why You Should CoppaFeel!

As this is the last piece of this year’s sex ed week, I would love to begin by saying thank you to everyone who has supported the project through reading, sharing, and generally showing interest. It means a lot for us to be able to share our knowledge and our opinions on something we consider to be of vital importance. If we help anyone at all, we’ll be over the moon. Equally, we’d love to hear how you think we can improve, and what we can do next year to make the project bigger and better.

Moving on, I do have one last piece for all you wonderful people! The rest of this article is dedicated to the lovely people at CoppaFeel!, who were kind enough to set aside some time and talk to us. If you don’t know, CoppaFeel! are a breast cancer awareness charity doing excellent work in the UK. Last year, I had a chat with their Education and Health Comms Director, Sophie, who caught me up on what they do, as well as how we can look after ourselves. To begin, Sophie told us to check out the rethinkcancer.com site, and to watch some of the CoppaFeel! videos, that help introduce them as a charity (things you should do too).

First off, we discussed the curriculum surrounding breast cancer awareness and sex education at present, and how it’s lacking. As you all already know, this is something I’m passionate about, and it was nice to see it resonated in larger organisations. The improvement of education of this nature is severely lacking, and that’s why we started this project in the first place.

We also discussed how CoppaFeel! have managed to get around the curriculum by deploying their fabulous Boobettes to schools. These guys have been delivering talks to schools, offices and girl-guide groups, and have spread their message far and wide through volunteers, and that’s pretty damn cool. These talks have helped a great deal in getting people to feel more comfortable around the conversation and to go home and start checking themselves.

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The foundation of CoppaFeel! seemed to be that breast cancer wasn’t on young people’s minds, and was something we considered to be a later-in-life sort of situation. But it isn’t. Breast cancer can strike anyone, at any age, of any gender. We don’t worry about it because we don’t think we need to, and CoppaFeel! are out to pop that bubble, ensuring we are all kept safe and healthy.

Their main goal is to encourage younger people (but ultimately everyone) to check their breasts regularly. They want to encourage as many healthy habits like this as they can. The key here, is knowing your own body. Like any serious illness, the symptoms vary from person to person, and as such knowing what is normal for your own body is essential. Get comfortable with yourself, and know what your body does and doesn’t do (check out their #WhatNormalFeelsLike campaign for this one!).

Since a lot of our readers (hello you!) are younger, it makes a great deal of sense for us to push CoppaFeel!’s Uni Boob Teams. At the time I chatted to Sophie, I was still a uni student so she offered links to the team that I could send out to my friends wanting to get involved. If you want to do something worthwhile at uni, and still have masses of fun, join the Uni Boob Team for CoppaFeel!. They’re a lovely community of student volunteers that run around in boob costumes, making boob cakes and telling everyone to check their own. What more do you want?

In the end, this was a lovely enlightening chat to have had with CoppaFeel!, and I’m immensely grateful to them for making the time to talk to me. They brought to my attention that empowerment and confidence walk hand in hand with all of this. It honestly hadn’t struck me before, but it makes sense; if you know your body, and you trust your body, then you hold the secret to being happy with it. Body confidence, as an issue, is a raging fire that no-one seems to have the power to put out, but perhaps if we all took a little longer taking care of ourselves, and noticing how we are made, we might help each other too.

Ultimately, my chat with CoppaFeel! instilled in me some very simple things, that I (and all of you) need to be reminded of. My brain was filled with messages of empowerment, and confidence. I understood that I should learn to know and trust my own body, and to listen to what it was telling me, and to see a doctor if things weren’t right. It is not a waste of time. It is important.

So visit CoppaFeel!’s website, or via their social channels to stay up to date with their boob-antics, and look after yourself, above all. Thank you all again for indulging us in this project, we hope we have inspired you, helped you, or perhaps just interested you. With any luck, we’ll see you again next September.

Love, Anthem xo

 

Words by Briony Brake, with help from CoppaFeel!
Part of September Sex Education Week, 2017.
Images and videos by CoppaFeel!

Teaching Menstrual Hygiene in Zambia

Last year, I spent a month volunteering in Zambia as a part of a student-led, nationwide charity called SKIP. The aim of the project, which has been running for 5 years now, was to teach local primary schools about sex education. The initiative passes on knowledge and materials to teachers and runs information sessions on STIs and HIV to women’s groups. By educating children and women in these topics, we aim to increase people’s knowledge within the community, giving them the means of protecting themselves.

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When I arrived at my first school I was given a government-issued textbook on sex education and a guide to what I should teach. I was so shocked by what I read. The books included phrases like ‘it is important to make yourself look nice for boys’, and included lists of desired characteristics for girls such as ’gentle, kind, good cook’. It seemed to me as though the country was decades behind our own, and I suddenly felt very overwhelmed. However, as I stood in the barely furnished, dusty classroom with that textbook in-hand, I looked around at my class and felt so driven to make a change.

My most successful, and potentially life-changing topics were periods and Project Mwezi. The so-called ‘tampon tax’ has been very present in the news recently, and rightly so as menstruation is far from a luxury. However, without access to sanitary products such as tampons, it can also be life-threatening. Despite being the most natural process for a woman, the presence of taboo in other countries severely undermines their rights; in Africa, 1 in 10 girls skip school during their period, and in India, 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.

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Women and girls are prevented from completing their education and are even socially excluded throughout puberty. They are denied access to water and sanitation facilities when they most desperately need them. As a result, women turn to unsafe materials such as old newspapers and leaves to manage their period. Poor management of menstrual wellbeing is not only damaging to physical health but also mental health. That’s what makes campaigns such as Project Mwezi and Dignity Period so vital to developing countries. They teach women how to make low-cost, reusable sanitary pads from easily accessible materials. This knowledge not only helps them in the short-term, but gives the resources needed to teach these skills for generations, and even set up businesses by making and selling the pads.

However, this is not the only resolution. A key piece of the puzzle for changing attitudes surrounding the issue lies in educating men and boys. It is equally important to generate understanding amongst them so they can support their sisters, mothers and wives, and help remove the taboo surrounding menstruation. This begins with sex education in schools, something which is poorly under-taught and often sexist. As a society, we need to work alongside NGOs and other charitable foundations to open up conversations surrounding menstrual wellbeing, and create a world in which every individual is given the opportunity to have control over their own bodies.

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All I can do is hope that I empowered those girls in my classes even to the smallest degree. To hope that they went home after school and shared their knowledge with their mother, sisters and cousins. To hope that enabling those girls to attend school a few more days a month is one small step towards gender equality in Zambia.

Until then I continue to support SKIP and other charities to make sure the message that #MenstruationMatters is heard.

 

 

Words by Rowan Duval-Fryer
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.
Images from SKIP and Femme International

Sex Drive and Sadness

The side effects and symptoms of depression and anxiety can seep into every nook of your life. They can destroy your confidence, your energy levels, you can lose your social life, and your sex life can disappear. Those who suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can watch their sex life suffer and not understand why. You can sit by as you watch your relationship fall apart, or you can’t quite find your confidence to keep the lights on and remove your clothes in front of someone else. You can think that you don’t feel the same wants and needs that everyone else around you apparently feels, or not be able to pinpoint what exactly in you has changed yet nothing feels the same.

One of the less discussed yet still debilitating side effects of depression is a loss of libido. This can destroy relationships, the sufferer may not feel that they are providing their partner with everything that they want and need and therefore can acquire a sense of guilt and not feel like an adequate partner. This does not come from a lack of love for the partner, but relates to the struggle to enjoy life in the same ways that they used to. This is normal. At a time when they may feel that everything tastes of nothing and there isn’t quite anything that makes them feel strongly about something anymore, a lack of sex drive is perfectly understandable. They can still be head over heels for someone but not feel any urge to have sex anymore, they are intrinsically different things. Discussing this with the partner may make things a little easier for them to understand; communication is important in order for someone to understand what you are truly thinking. 

Another consequence of depression and anxiety can be a feeling of low self-confidence and low self-esteem. The thought of letting someone else see your body can be stomach churning, and the idea that they may find you attractive is baffling, but part of the self-care, if you have a mental illness, is to learn to fall in love with your body and to learn to find peace with yourself. If you aren’t currently okay with letting someone else see you fully naked, then build on it over time and learn where to draw the line of how comfortable you are. Never force yourself to do something because you feel like you should be doing it. If you are uncomfortable with something, work out why you feel that way and try to solve it or work around it.

Give yourself time, don’t force yourself into something that you are not comfortable with. You’re not alone in these feelings and looking after your mental health will help ensure that you have a healthy sex life. Don’t forget that every person has a different sex drive; what is normal for one person may be much higher or much lower than yours, having a dip is therefore normal for you. As with any issue discussed this week, if something is particularly worrying you, take time to go to the doctors so that you can talk about it.

 

Words by Beth Farrell
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

Blue Monday, Blue Winter, Blue Year.

Blue Monday is not the most depressing day of the year, nor is it any more or less depressing than any other day of the year.

January can be a difficult month as we tend to pile even more pressure onto ourselves with sweeping New Year’s resolutions that often force us to think we should be fitter, stronger, or better than we already are. My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to watch more films because I keep watching the same ones over and over .

I do not plan to get smarter, thinner, or better at riding my bike because I have as much control over the year as I do the weather. This year I’m going to try my best to look after myself while I attempt to embrace the mess that is life after uni.

I don’t believe I will be happy all year. I don’t believe I will be healthy and happy for the next New Year because I don’t know what life will bring. My attitude differs to the popular resolve I’m sure, but it seems fair to me.

As such, I know people will think I’m being negative by saying that Blue Monday is as depressing as any other day. I feel I should however remind you that Blue Monday is false, has no scientific backing, and was made up by holiday company Sky Travel in their 2005 press release. Blue Monday is pseudoscience, and an angle for marketers. So all of this (see below) is bullshit.

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My point with this piece isn’t to mock you, or to tell you how foolish you are to buy into all the companies and newspapers telling you to be depressed every January 16th. My point is to tell you that for many people, the entire month, season or year can be so awfully blue, that one day won’t make a difference.

We should not see Blue Monday as a day to feel bad about ourselves unnecessarily, but as a reminder of how much work we need to put into looking after ourselves, as often as we can. Whether it’s a seasonal affective, or year-round depression, it’s important to focus on the good.

Articles from the Daily Mail (*cough* trash) telling us why things are terrible and ‘more depressing than usual’, should be replaced with good news, and things to be happy about. We should not feel bad for being upset, and we should definitely not feel bad on behalf of others when we are sad. It is a human right to feel. It is a part of living to cry and feel down, as much as it is to laugh and feel joy.

This Blue Monday, I ask that you stop reading articles about the bad in the world and to instead watch a film, or have dessert or a hot chocolate. I don’t want you to feel bad because you’ve been told to. I ask that you look after yourself as well as you should every other day of the year, and to do your best to keep it up from now on.

Blue Monday isn’t real, but your health and feelings are. Look after what counts, and be kind to yourself.

 

Words by Briony Brake

Caring About Self-Care

I’ve been learning a lot recently. I’ve been at a school, for the mind.

I’ve had a bit of a revelation about life, the universe, and everything.

Ok, are you ready? Listening? Ears tuned to Sian frequency? Eyes ready to be widened in shock?

Here we go:

It’s important to look after yourself.

I KNOW. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure.

It turns out, that it’s quite important for your mental and physical wellbeing to care about yourself, and your body and your mind. It’s makes a difference if you shower, and change your bed sheets, and give yourself evenings in to watch Netflix. Eating proper meals makes you feel better!

And not just in the obvious ways. It turns out that doing nice things for yourself means that you start to believe that you’re worth those nice things (or not even nice things just normal looking after yourself things) and then you feel better and give yourself more of those nice things and then you feel better and then-

Wait… you guys don’t look as surprised as I was hoping. Oh you… you already knew? Who told you? You just knew? How did you just know? Oh. Okay yeah, fair enough. Common sense. Yeah.

For me, this is pretty big news.

Here are some things I have done since I learnt about self care:

  • Got a job
  • Bought myself fresh flowers
  • Did my washing more regularly
  • Bought nice shampoo
  • Wore clothes that made me happy

I thought that self-care was just showering and sleeping. But, it turns out, it’s so much more than that. It turns out that if you make yourself feel nice, then you’ll feel nice. And that if you look after yourself properly and dedicate time to thinking about the way you feel, you’ll actually feel better.

I’m in about week 6 of therapy. I’m trying so fucking hard to undo negative thoughts, and feelings, and relearn what happy is. No, not even what happy is, just what okay is. And that alone, that act of making myself go and talk to a lovely doctor every week about why I feel the way I do, is a kind of self-care. Because I’m learning to value myself, and what I need. And that’s so important

I can’t believe I didn’t know it was important! Why did no one tell me it was so important! Why aren’t we taught it in schools – why don’t we have sex education, and drug education, and then mental health education about how the world is big and scary but you are valid, and real, and how we are all just blobs of being and we are what we make ourselves and we should look after ourselves because it’s so self-validating?

I wish I had been taught that I am worth looking after. I wish everyone got taught that, because you are, you so so are.

 

Words by Sian Brett.

 

I Don’t Need Two Halves To Be Whole

Singing birds in the morning sun,
or do they quiver at what you’ve done?

Echoes of laughter bounce off walls
just like the therapy balls
that weren’t good enough either.

Love is learnt in pairs
But then surely I am half empty.
Or am I half full, with her brown eyes,
much deeper than cuts and
much brighter than cigarette butts.
Pay attention:
Thick skin sentry. 

Every new pair he’ll slip through,
in between cracks, which can be filled into.

And she has already outgrown you.

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I have always thought that I’d be half empty because I didn’t want to inherit any resemblance of my father. Thinking about it now though, if he were to be anything in my life, he would be the sickness.

Like with sickness, sometimes the less you know the better. I never had a great relationship with my father. I think this answers a lot of questions about my teenage relationships: the over-attachment, the insecurity, only being able to understand love and kindness from guys when it came in the form of degradation.

This poem says that I am complete without my father. I am whole without him because my mother was enough, as a parent, as a friend, and most importantly, as a woman. She did not allow him to be the making of her and only now do I realise how empowering that has been for me.

The absence of my father has meant more room for my mother and has come with a profound understanding that I do not need a man to validate me.

I no longer worry about searching for my other half. I am already full.

 

 

Words by Jasmine York
Illustration for ANTHEM by Ellen Forbes