The Body Politic

Black and white image of a woman wearing a black corset for Luck and the Body Politic post by Malin James

Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff

It’s been a rough week…a rough month, to be honest. I don’t normally share this sort of thing, but it ties into something important, so I’m going to.

My body is strong – a bit busted up, but strong and faithful and generally trustworthy. That’s why I was taken by surprise when I got a “concerning” (ie: abnormally abnormal) result on a cervical biopsy last month.

I took it for granted that the biopsy would come back clear. I had no basis for that assumption – there’s a history of cervical cancer in my family, so abnormal results shouldn’t have surprised me, but there you go. Nothing blinds like optimism.

Unfortunately, I was also in the tiny minority of women who get a cervical infection after a biopsy (not fun, in case you were wondering), which is why they waited  a month to do the procedure that eradicates suspicious cells – the very same cells that took advantage of the delay to grow like the ambitious little bastards they were. As a result, this fairly simple procedure ended up being a lot more involved (and painful) than it usually is, which is why I’ve spent the week laid up. Lots of time to think.

Aside from really wishing I’d had (even) more drugs during the procedure because wow, A LOT  just wasn’t enough, I’m trying to take it in stride. It’s a common procedure and they caught the cells before they had a chance to become a problem. So, why am I feeling so fragile and emotional? You’d think my head fell off….

It’s to do with a few things I suspect. The first is that a woman’s cervix is freaking sensitive and having it messed with, even by a doctor for the very best of reasons, is unsettling. I’ve also experienced sexual trauma so I’m extra protective of that area, which made it upsetting in that way too. And then there’s the last thing, which is what I want to focus on – the feeling of having dodged a bullet through sheer, dumb, circumstantial luck.

This isn’t about mortality – that’s a whole other thing. It’s about **resources and who gets access to them. I had a relatively straightforward procedure that, even with complications, worked out to my benefit – no cervical cancer for me, thanks! The price I had to pay was worth it, and I would gladly pay it again. But some people aren’t so lucky. Some people don’t have a choice.

The procedure I had is routinely available in 2016. So is the Pap smear that led to the biopsy that led to me sitting in stirrups while a surgeon did surgical things to me. And because I have medical insurance, I was given the choice of having those things done. A lot of women would happily make the same choices, but without access to comprehensive medical care, they can’t. And that’s a horrible thought.

I’m thinking about all of the women who try (and have tried) to end pregnancies in ways that are as dangerous to them as they are to the fetus. I’m thinking about breast cancers that metastasize and the daughters who lose mothers because something is wrong but no one knows what  – not until it’s too late. I’m thinking about all of the people who die from preventable diseases because services aren’t available when they’re needed.

I am not equating what my cervical experience with an abortion. Not even close. What I am doing is pointing out that, while reproductive health is something that we advocate for, fund and defend, there are a lot of people who don’t enjoy the benefit of those resources because they can’t afford them. That makes it frustrating and all the more tragic in a different way when people who do have access don’t use them.

Everyone is physically vulnerable. Our mortality guarantees that. But if you have access to resources and education, use them—get STI screenings, get Pap smears, do breast exams. They are crazy-amazing interventions. While nothing in medicine will prevent you from eventually kicking off, access to care buys you choices, and that’s something I wish everyone had more of. Unfortunately, in practical terms (at least, in the U.S.) health coverage is still not universal, despite the political progress made in this area, and that’s nothing compared to the lack of basic medical care in Third World and developing nations.

Our bodies, whether we like it or not, are political objects, and medicine is a political issue. I’m not saying you have to rally for universal health coverage, abortion rights or fundraise for breast cancer awareness. All I’m saying is that a great deal of the world’s population does not have access to good medicine. In fact, for the bulk of human history, no one did.

So, if you do have access to health care, don’t take it for granted and definitely don’t  waste it. Use the educational and medical resources available to you. It’s one very basic way to advocate for more. And when you vote on issues pertaining to medical assistance, try to let empathy guide you as much, or more than, economics or political allegiance. There are so many resources regarding reproductive health, from birth control to cures for abnormal cell growth. It breaks my heart that, whether due to insufficient sexual education or insufficient funding, so many people have to do without.

That’s why I feel lucky (and ridiculously emotional) – I got to have a procedure that hurt like hell, thoroughly rattled my cage and may have saved my life somewhere down the line, and I got it because I have a lovely little card that means I’m part of an HMO with a co-pay I can afford. That’s an incredibly privileged position to be in, especially in a world where people still die from curable diseases. Given all that, I don’t mind being reminded how lucky I am.

** While this post is generally about women and reproductive health, the same applies to all areas of medical concern, from vaccinations to urology (fun! sorry…not fun…). If you have access to health care, use it, even if the resource you need makes your five-year-old cry. Even if it makes you cry. It’s better than not having the choice. 


  1. I’m so sorry you’ve been through this Malin – how terrifying. I too had an odd cervical experience this year (nowhere near as serious as yours but it dragged on for months and had me worried it *was* serious) – and also like you I have the privilege of good health care – however, mine is available to all here regardless of circumstances. The National Health Service we enjoy in the UK is precious indeed.
    Be well, dear Malin x x

    • The UK’s National Health Service is such a good example of how possible it is to provide basic care for all. I wish we were similarly progressive here… And I’m so sorry you had a cervical thing as well – that it went on for months is awful and draining, especially given how worrying this sort of thing is. I so happy it turned out not to be as serious as it might have been. Thank god for modern medicine…

  2. Having something go wrong in our sexual / reproductive health can leave us feeling incredibly vulnerable. I appreciated the thoughtful scope of this post in terms of looking at it from several sociological positions, Malin. Australia is somewhat better in terms of health care availability to all, but some health professionals are massively overworked and underpaid (nurses, for example) and every new Government seems to want to dismantle what we have. I am a daughter of a mother who died because “they didn’t know what was wrong”. It was breast cancer, but was initally misdiagnosed, so valuable time was wasted. Other debacles also ensued. I often wonder if she would still be here now, had she received a correct diagnosis in the first place.

    I hope that you are resting up, and recovering.

    • Oh, Adrea. Thank you. I’m so sorry things progressed as they did with your mom’s case. It’s frightening how dependent we are on getting the right diagnosis on time. You brought up an important point – having access to care is a good first step, but the doctors, nurses and other professionals providing that care need support, fair pay and sane hours in order to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Too much depends on them to take their work for granted.

  3. I am feeling this so hard right now (cervices are indeed sensitive). First: VERY glad to hear that you’re okay. I hope you’re physically recovering from the infection – sure that will be quicker than the emotional recovery. Thank you for sharing such a personal story and using it to make an important point: It is absolutely imperative that we advocate for and take advantage of good preventative health care for all, especially when millions of people don’t have access to affordable or effective medical services. Being in South Korea has made me so much more appreciative of universal health care. Actually, I’m quite nervous about re-patriating and trying to navigate the complicated health care system in the US since here I can just go to any doctor any time…. so I’m getting all the things done before I leave!

    • Thank you, Jo. I’m definitely recovering on all fronts. And I hear you about being nervous about re-patriating into the health care system. Honestly, I get nervous every time our insurance shifts with a job change and that’s a much smaller thing to navigate. I think it’s super smart to get it done ahead of time – there’s enough stress involved with an international move without adding that!

  4. holdenandcamille

    August 12, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Hope you’re feeling better, lovely. I have endured a very similar procedure to the one you described — twice — and so I can definitely empathize. Take care! ~C

  5. Sorry for your pain, Malin, but glad that it was picked up in a timely fashion. This is a lesson to us all to take advantage of health checks, and feel thankful we weren’t born in countries where this advantage is denied.

  6. Sending many hugs your way Malin, for your own recovery and comfort, and for being the inspiring, word-fizzing dynamo that you are.

    I love that your pen takes you into varied spheres of commentary. Your words are always worth reading, inspiring me to give consideration where I might not.


    • Thank you, Emmanuelle. I’m finding that I’m drifting into different spheres more and more recently. Happily, I suspect erotica and sex will always be home base, but there are so many things to think about and say. I’m very lucky that people seem to be willing to drift around with me.

  7. Yes, we are so fortunate to have that card. But so many still don’t . We, in this country we profess to say is the greatest in the world, just can’t say that healthcare is a right. Why do we refuse to join so many other civilized countries that have made it truly affordable. What’s wrong with us?

  8. I really feel for you. I’ve had issues with my cervix too. Abnormal smears, biopsies, cervical tears, an operation to try and fix a raggedy cervix which has now left me with an ‘incompetent cervix’. Nothing like a good medical term that leaves you feeling inadequate!!

    I am more than paranoid when it comes down to my incredibly sensitive cervix, the slightest touch is sore and I have a weird, painful starburst feeling when anybody touches it.

    I would implore anyone to make sure they keep upto date, wherever possible, with cervical smears. It’s such an important check and the consequences of not doing so are awful to think about.

    • I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that awfulness, (and personally, I think there must be a better term for it than “incompetent cervix”).It’s shocking that such a tiny bit of anatomy can cause so many different kinds of problems. All the more reason for women to be serious about keeping up to date on exams and checks. Honestly, it’s only as I’ve gotten a bit older that I’ve paid it as much attention as I should. It’s just too important to skip.

  9. Valerie Alexander

    August 12, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Get out of my head, Malin! I’ve been dealing with illness for most of the year (getting better now) and even so I DO NOT take advantage of my health insurance enough. Part of it is being self-insured and terrified “they” will find a way to kick me off if I stop being an officially healthy person. This was a great reminder for all of us to appreciate and protect what we have.

    I’m glad you got good news but sorry you had to go down that rabbit hole. Gyn procedures can bring up so many feelings. It’s an intensely vulnerable place to be.

  10. Oh, Malin. I’m glad you had medical intervention in time. As a Canadian adult who grew up in the U.S. (until age 16). I never take the Canadian health care system for granted. (It was based on the British model. Britain got it in 1948, my province in Canada in 1962.) Several years ago, I fell on the ice and fractured one wrist. I had to have surgery, which was amazing – the wrist feels completely restored, with only a scar to remind me, free of charge. I really hope some politician in the U.S. will bring health care to the masses (And if Ms. Clinton gets in, she needs to push this issue).

  11. Sorry you have had such a rough month. Hope you are getting better and recover happy and healthy!

  12. You such are a wonderful, strong, beautiful, talented, generous person and I love you so much, Malin. This is a beautiful post. I’m so sorry to hear things have been so very tough. Let me know if ever I can help. Thinking of you and sending you so, so, so much love and many big, warm hugs! xoxo

    • Oh, Lana, thank you! Your comment just filled me with so much warm glowiness! I’m feeling much better, thank goodness. Mostly, I’m grateful to be so very lucky on so many fronts. Thank you for being so steadfast in your amazing, wonderful support as regards so, so many things. You are very much one of the things I am grateful for. Sending huge love and hugs right back! xoxo

  13. Your story moved me, and I will be sharing it with my young adult son. His best female friend called him to discuss her abnormal cervical cell report and the impending biopsy. At 24 years of age and adopted, she doesn’t feel like she can tell her folks and get support. Who at 24 is stable enough in core self to work it out? He did his best and even suggested she contact me. I am still awaiting the call.

    The complexities of health care are mind boggling. When you put all our wonderfully nuanced personal differences in the mix, it makes my head explode. This young woman, fortunately, has the medical support, she is surrounded by doctors in her family, but she is missing vital emotional support. It breaks my heart that she feels she can’t tell them and knowing the entire family, I understand her position. I am proud of my son for being steadfast in his friendship with her, even if he felt inadequate in what he provided.

    Thank you for taking the time to gather your thoughts and share. Empathy goes a long way in helping to change processes. And as always, the personal is political.

    I hope your body and your spirit feel better soon.

    • Thank you so much for taking a moment to comment. I’m very happy that this post struck a cord. It sounds like your son’s friend is very lucky in your friendship with him. Indeed, he sounds like an incredibly kind and good person. I will keep my fingers crossed that she not only finds the support she needs from her family, but that the results of her biopsy are benign. What a difficult thing to have to confront so young… Thank you again for you comment and well wishes. Both are much appreciated.

  14. Firstly, am sorry you have had these health problems and I hope you are well on the mend. But oh my gosh, this is such an important piece and I am so glad you wrote it.

    “Our bodies, whether we like it or not, are political objects, and medicine is a political issue.” This is so so true. A hefty portion of the work I do is around women’s health in Africa and one of my clients is the Royal College of Obsetricians and Gynaecologists. Some of the stories I’ve seen and heard through them are quite horrific. Just two months ago I was in Uganda interviewing women about their maternal and gynaecology health. The lack of access to advice and treatment is so horrifying and it’s all by accident of where we are born. I’m back to work tomorrow after my holiday and the first thing I have to do is write up a bunch of stories about this very issues. I’m feeling motivated more than ever now.


    • Thanks so much for this. I’m healing up and feeling much better. And I’m so, *so* happy there are people like you who are in the position to properly interview women and research this issue, especially in places like Africa. The divide between the have’s and have not’s regarding health care is horrifying, all the more so because the issue is economic at its base. Figure that you and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have at least one American cheerleading you work.

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