Torture Survival: Its Impact on Coping with Mammograms

By Jeanne Sarson | Apr 28, 2011

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Yesterday, I listened to Sara's message on my answering machine.[1] She was asking who she could contact to try to explain why mammogram technicians need sensitivity education so they would become aware of the impact forced nakedness can have on women who have survived non-state torture (NST) victimization. She described how re-victimizing it is for and to her to be 'forced' to strip naked to her waist and walk into a room so exposed. "Why," she asked, "can't they let me wear the hospital gown and only remove it as necessary during the actual mammogram X-ray?"

Sara has tried, in years past, as well as this year, to ask the X-ray department and the X-ray mammogram technician to be respectful of her and her NST history. She says she has never been listened to. Year after year it is the same triggering experience of the past emotional humiliation she endured when tortured. My suggestions were, she could write to the hospital CEO, or the Cancer Society, or to the newspaper.

But what can Linda and I do? We educate wherever we can, such as, providing lectures to university students who are taking health science degrees. But this morning I awoke with the thought I ought to write this blog. Maybe other women might think of contacting the Cancer Society asking that they initiate sensitivity education as part of their outreach program. So, to all you women out there who are interested in supporting women who have survived torture victimization give the Cancer Society a call or send an email sharing this blog – we could make a difference!

What would such sensitivity education mean? It would mean:

1. Presenting information about the impact of NST victimization, specifically directed at imparting the knowledge that NST victimization includes forced nakedness as well as sexualized and physical torture pain inflicted to women's breasts; therefore, the nakedness and physical discomfort or pain of the mammogram is a challenge for women so harmed to cope with. Non-state torturers inflict severe degrees of psychological humiliation on the girl/woman they torture so that when a woman's body integrity is not respected during the mammogram process this can trigger a woman's memories of deep emotional humiliation. Triggering that can create and replicate the past torture ordeals, causing a secondary re-victimizing experience.

2. Education would include changing the nakedness practices, such as, not assuming a woman is comfortable sitting naked from the waist up at the desk while the technician asks questions about her physical and medication health history.

3. The practice of wearing no hospital gown could be changed to respecting the woman's need to only have the gown removed over one breast at a time while the technician takes the mammogram X-rays; this could be achieved by having a woman wear the hospital gown backwards to the normal habit of having the opening towards the back. A gown worn backwards, with the opening in the front, would permit exposure of one of her breasts at a time during the mammogram.

4. Listening to a woman when she says she has survived NST and working with her in a manner that is respectful of her need not to endure unnecessary nakedness; this would permit her to maintain her Self-dignity.

These do not seem like impossible challenges. Making these small changes in practice might encourage more women so harmed to engage in breast cancer prevention and Self-caring – a most worthwhile outcome!

[1] Sara is a pseudonym.

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