Yellow fingers

I’m due for my next pap smear later this week, that bi-annual event when the doctor takes up her silver speculum – her fingers of steel – and inserts it as far as she can to scrape off a small tissue sample to send off to the laboratory.

All of it designed as a preventative measure to rule out the possibility of cellular changes that might suggest the arrival of something dreadful like cancer.

I must have endured over twenty pap smears over the years given my age, if I do my calculations right and each time they become easier.

Even so there’s something in the process that causes me to hold my breath and gasp at the invasiveness of this procedure, this intrusion into my body that may be necessary if prevention is the aim, but nevertheless feels obscene.

When I was young in my mid twenties when I first took up the regular pap smear habit, given all the times I’d heard about the dangers sexually active women might encounter if they did not check our their inner workings regularly.

I was content to take myself off to see my then usually male GP who would leave the room to give me time to strip off my lower half of clothes and crawl onto the elected examination table and cover myself in the crisp starched sheets that were the main stay of the medical profession.

These days they tend to use towels and more recently I’ve noticed they prefer disposable sheets of material like paper for hygienic purposes. In any case there was always an attempt at modesty and the GP, my first regular GP once I’d left home and established myself as a grown up was a gentle kind man, who reeked of cigarettes and who donned the disposable gloves of his trade over his nicotine yellow fingers and always tried to engage in light conversation as he shifted the speculum into place.

Twenty or so pap smears later and I still have trouble in working out how best to position myself for this procedure. I need to be reminded every time. The way the doctor urges me to put my feet together sole to sole so that my knees spill out to either side, which apparently makes for easier access.

And what to do with my arms and hands? Let them rest by my side. Not once have I found it painful, though I recognise some women do, and perhaps the fact that I have learned to switch off my mind to this intrusion and float away on clouds of dissociation may have contributed to the extent to which I usually feel nothing during the procedure.

I learned this on my visits to the dentist as a child when I needed to switch off and float to the ceiling, to look down at the doctor whose white coat concealed the arms and gloved fingers of the monster who was about to intrude into my mouth with metal spikes and tweezers and all manner of unspeakable equipment, far worse than the speculum.

I shall try to stay awake during this next visit to my doctor. A woman for preference. A woman because somehow I imagine she is more understanding of this internal violation that we women must endure every two years if we are to stave off the horrors of other unwelcome guests.

It’s the intimacy mixed in with the coldness of steel; the clinical specificity of the doctor’s need to gather cell samples with the posturing required; the nakedness; the closeness to love making; to other forms of activity, like when you’re being raped and all those associations that turn the humble pap smear into an additional traumatic occurrence in a life that’s filled with occasions when the best thing you can do is dissociate.

I have the same sense when I’m writing. This same need to cut off from my emotions in the cold clinical way of a surgeon, so that my fingers can take up each word as it floats into my consciousness and put it down there on the page as it comes to me, not to react to that inner voice that recoils and tells me I must not write this.

I go in, invade my space, and come up with a sample that’s hopefully not cancerous, but a pointer to the illusion that, for a while at least, all is well.

6 thoughts on “Yellow fingers”

  1. My dyke ‘sister in law’ is now a GP in a small seaside country town. I guess it quickly became known around town that she was a dyke doctor and how the local women flocked to her to have their pap smears done. I did not ask her why and I wouldn’t have a clue. Maybe you understand.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me that women might flock to your sister in law, Andrew and maybe even more so for gay women. I used to think that not only women but also men felt more safe with female doctors but I’ve since heard otherwise. Maybe we can’t generalise. It’s such a personal, subjective and idiosyncratic experience. Thanks, Andrew.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I worried I might have been stretching a long bow with this analogy but still it seems apt. And it’s like that for me, much of the time while writing. I almost feel nothing. I talked about it once in a writing group, this odd sensation, almost of disinterest, dissociation maybe, and the person taking the class told us of an idea I think from Eudora Welty. It follows: when we’re writing, it’s like we become a child threading coloured beads onto a thread. Quietly and thoughtfully deliberating over which bead to thread next. I love this idea of threading beads onto a string as part of the writing process. It helps account for that strange cut-off sensation I sometimes feel when I’m writing, when I examine whatever image comes to my mind as if from a distance and then decide where I will put my next colourful bead in a long line of other beads. And all the while my emotions are on hold, hovering here behind somewhere but not interfering with this decision process, helping me to get through what might otherwise be harrowing or difficult, like when I’m enduring a pap smear.

  2. Last night I sealed my bowel screening test in its envelope ready to post on Monday. Every two years I receive this test to complete and (so far) within a couple of weeks I get the all clear. I hate it. This year they sent me a reminder because I’d left the paperwork sitting on my desk and ignored it. I’m not usually dilatory but this year I simply couldn’t face it. The truth is every day I’m walking round with a gutful of shit in me but as long as it stays hidden I can pretend it’s not there and, of course, when I use the toilet everything happens out of sight and so I don’t need to address the fact. Not so when the bowel screening test arrives in the post.

    I’ve never had a prostrate exam though. I suppose that’s the closest most men will get to what you’ve described here. I’m not sure how I’d feel about it only that’s not true: the poet in me would be fascinated by the whole process and before his interest had been sated the intrusion would be over. That’s the way it usually goes with me and at times it can be a blessing; other times I’ve felt cheated.

    It’s said frequent ejaculation can ward off prostate cancer. I read a news report a few days ago (pure coincidence) that reported that men who orgasm 21 times a month significantly reduce their risk of cancer (a similar Australian study points to seven times a week) but there’s a catch: it’s only an effective preventative measure in men aged fifty and older. I wonder when someone will report something similar in relation of cervical cancer. I just smile when I read stuff like that. We really haven’t a clue.

    My current doctor’s a man. The one before that was an Irishwoman (lovely accent) and I was very fond of her—I wanted to hug her when I learned she was leaving but contented myself with a handshake—and I would’ve had no problems with a female again but decided to switch to Carrie’s doctor since she spoke so highly of him. He’s okay: professional, efficient. I’d prefer a woman. It’s easier to be weak with a woman. Doctors never see you at your best. Would I prefer if a woman does my first prostrate exam? That is a hard one to answer. There are pros and cons. A woman seeing me as weak is one thing, dirty is something else. Then again they usually have smaller hands and slenderer fingers.

    1. I reckon it’s hard for both men and women and all those in-between, Jim . These pesky things called bodies, which wear out over time and although some can be reconditioned, in time all parts will conk out completely. In the meantime, we do the best we can to survive. I suppose the dreaded prostate is the equivalent of the pap smear and equally invasive. Also, equally necessary to alert us to early signs of something unwanted settling in. At least you have a decent GP, which helps. Thanks, Jim.

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