Unmarried women say they feel misunderstood in doctors' offices

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Regardless of sexual orientation, unmarried women ages 40 to 75 voiced reluctance to undergo routine cancer screening tests, feeling out of place or misunderstood in health care settings, according to the first wave of information from a five-year Brown University Cancer Screening Project for Women.

Unmarried women said their feelings were based on everything from the wording used in pre-visit questionnaires to conversations with health care providers. For example, doctors' intake forms did not allow them to indicate any partner other than a husband, and, during the exam, their doctors did not ask them about their intimate relationships.

"Regardless of partnership preference, women in this age group were uncomfortable when their doctors assumed they did not have a partner because they were not married," said Melissa A. Clark, assistant professor of community health and the project leader. "Women wanted a trusting relationship with at least one provider who knows about their life and is informed about the health issues related to their sexual history and intimate relationships."

The Cancer Screening Project for Women is one of the first studies to focus on why the more than 20 million unmarried women between the ages of 40 and 75 in this country are less likely than married women to obtain regular screening tests for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. With the aging baby boomer population, the size of that population promises to grow significantly in the coming years.

Some women think that they are not at risk for certain types of cancer because they are not in a sexual relationship with a man, said Clark. Often they do not realize that there are a number of factors that must be considered in determining risk for cancer.

For example, a woman's sexual history, among other factors, has a bearing on her chances of getting cervical cancer and, therefore, on whether she should be tested. While pap tests are

Contact: Kristen Cole
Brown University

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