Examine Yourself: Secret diary of an Irish teacher on cancer education

Examine Yourself: Secret diary of an Irish teacher on cancer education

I GOT my first period in 1993. The memory of it is seared in my mind. I remember everything, the exact bathroom I was in, what I was wearing, and my firm conviction that I was about to die.

I’d heard of periods by then. My best friend had got her period two years previously, but we hadn’t actually talked about it. It hung in the air, an invisible presence between us. It almost had a trophy quality, for me at least, like she had achieved something I hadn’t. In theory, I wanted my period more than anything. When it happened, I felt very vulnerable and very afraid.

In schools now we talk about bodies. A huge part of a teacher’s job is about keeping students safe and resilient and lots of these conversations happen in social, personal, and health education.

In SPHE lessons across the country, boys and girls are taught about periods as a physical fact of life. At an age-appropriate level, they are taught about sex, consent, and physical health. And they are safer because of it.

Knowing about periods is a small part of a much bigger issue — it’s about getting used to listening to your body closely. Keeping yourself safe. Education is power in a very real way when it comes to our health.

When I was about 20, I asked a doctor (thankfully not my regular one) if I needed to get a smear test. I was told quite plainly that as I ‘came from the family, I did’ there was little need. Cervical cancer, she assured me, was only brought about by casual sex. Even if I was having sex, so long as I wasn’t being promiscuous, I was safe.

That conversation haunts me. Not because a small percentage of cervical cancer can be caused outside sexual intercourse, but because this woman could have been my only source of knowledge on the subject.

If I hadn’t been lucky enough to know other doctors, advisers, I might not have been so careful to get regular smears. I remember travelling to America on my J1 in college and being astounded by how openly young women were talking about their health and how frequently they were getting regular check-ups.

In Ireland in 1993, at least how I experienced it, people didn’t talk about periods and they didn’t talk about sex.

At 11, I received a religious pamphlet about ‘gardens’ and ‘intruders’ but I was too young and inexperienced to grasp the metaphors.

In today’s classroom my 13-year-old self would get an opportunity to discuss everything about the body including death and loss. I might listen to another student discussing the impact of cancer on their family.

I might get to ask questions about health and sex, sexuality, and puberty in an open and informed space. My teacher might show me a tampon and a sanitary towel and explain their uses. I would not end up terrified in a bathroom.I would not only understand what sex is, but I would recognise what healthy relationships look like.

This is one of the benefits of coeducational schooling. It is inherently powerful for kids to learn about their physical and sexual health together. There is still a disturbing chasm between men and women around issues of consent so why on earth should we not educate them in the same room? In this regard, Ireland is behind other countries, but where children are in single sex schools we can at least collaborate with other schools on it.

Before the summer months, teachers in SPHE lessons will also discuss sunburn and skin cancer. Sunburn in youth is a particular risk in developing the most common cancer in Ireland later in life. Kids will identify their skin type and will understand how at risk they are. Some might argue that this is too much information, but we are now being told that one in two of us will develop cancer in our lifetime.

I dread to think of myself and my friends in school, rolling up our shirts, hiking up our skirts, lathering ourselves in baby oil.

Why is this all so important? Because I learned about my body by chance, haphazardly, through situations that were not always positive.

Thanks to SPHE, young people should know more than we did in the nineties. But even more importantly, they should see their bodies as spaces that deserve and warrant discussion. This will mean they can talk about concerns they might have in the future. They will perform breast and testicular checks in a routine way and will bring up any concerns openly without embarrassment. Quite possibly, SPHE lessons will save lives.

Some might question where the teacher’s role ends and begins. Should a teacher show a class a tampon, a condom, or how often to apply sunscreen? My feeling is that I am an educator and I want my students to know what they need to know. I care a lot more about their wellbeing than I do about where my school might rank on school tables.

For me, an education is never reflected in points or percentage admissions to college. As Mark Twain said, ‘a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’.

When it comes to my students, I’d rather give them a headstart.

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