In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King tells the story of his mother’s 1971 trip to Minnesota for her sister’s funeral. On the plane, she begins to bleed. She’s long since entered menopause, but she simply tells herself that she’s having one last period. She acquires a tampon and mentions nothing. It isn’t until two years later that her doctor finally catches a very advanced case of uterine cancer. It will kill her within a year. King observes that his mother Ruth, a religious and old-fashioned woman, actually died of embarrassment.
What happened to her is, unfortunately, a far from rare occurrence. Every day, people avoid seeking medical care because of embarrassment. And, failure to get tested can have repercussions for them and for those around them.
Ticking Time Bomb
Type 2 diabetes is a prevalent threat in a population that is heavier and less active than generations before. Untreated, it can lead to blindness, heart disease, kidney disease and death. Of the 28.1 million people in the U.S. who have type 2 diabetes, nearly a quarter are undiagnosed. The health complications from undiagnosed diabetes cost $176 billion in direct medical costs each year and another $69 billion in lost productivity. People often fail to seek testing and treatment because they are afraid of what their doctors will tell them.
Untreated and Communicable
One of the areas where avoiding medical tests can be most damaging is in the area of STDs. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly one in seven people in the U.S. who have HIV are unaware of their status. Many of those are people who avoid testing because they are afraid of what they will learn. Others fear judgment from friends or family. And, still others are unaware that there are rapid HIV tests available that can give results in as little as 20 minutes.
Getting Past Embarrassment and Finding Better Health
There are a number of angles being worked on to help individuals get over their embarrassment and get the health care that they need. The breast cancer awareness movement has, for instance, taken a previously undiscussed cancer and tackled the topic head-on. Between no-nonsense discussions about self-breast exams and the humor of campaigns like “Save the Tatas” they have increased the number of women who seek out mammograms and detect their cancer early. Removing the taboo against discussing this cancer means that more people have the awareness to catch the disease when it is most treatable.
The American Diabetes Foundation has invested in education and advocacy programs, as well. By increasing access to testing at health fairs, they can allow people to detect the disease earlier. Type 2 diabetes can frequently be managed through lifestyle changes and, in many cases, goes into remission altogether when a patient begins to eat right and exercise.
Home testing is another intriguing option for detecting diseases that many are afraid to confront in their doctor’s office. Colon disease tests can check for the occult blood that can be a sign of medical problems. Home STD tests can allow singles and couples to assure that they are protected from HIV, hepatitis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
By combining approaches that allow individuals to preserve their privacy with education and advocacy to break taboos, we can help assure that fewer people live with undiagnosed conditions. By helping people become more aware of their potential health issues, it is possible to reduce medical costs, prevent transmission of communicable diseases and to improve individuals’ quality of life.