Dr. Rebecca Martínez, from the University of Missouri, was the third in a series of lecturers presented by the Sexuality & Gender Institute on Tuesday, November 12. She had a lot to say about blurred lines to the excellent showing of students and faculty in Caputo Hall. Though she was not referring to a certain controversial Robin Thicke song, she was referring to something even more controversial – the impact of doctors’ preconceived perceptions on the treatment of Venezuelan women.
Dr. Martínez’s lecture, entitled “Women Out of Control: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Cancer Control Narratives,” tackled the issue of cervical cancer and its treatment in women in Venezuela. Initially, this might seem like an irrelevant topic for students in Millersville, PA, but false perceptions are an ever-present reality in every culture.
For Dr. Martínez, the decision to study this particular subject began in graduate school and has persisted into the present day. In that span of time, she has spent much time in Venezuela as a Fulbright Scholar, working intimately with doctors in the field and at the Venezuelan Cancer Society.
Dr. Martínez stated that there are “blurred boundaries between risk factors and moralizing about behavior correlated with disease” among the doctors. A majority of those physicians cite promiscuity as a risk factor for contracting cervical cancer, some even going so far as to cite promiscuity as an “infectious agent.”
While the medical field is well aware of cervical cancer being the third leading cause of death for women in Venezuela, factoring between 1500-2000 deaths per year, the unfortunate reality is that most doctors do not see it as a strictly medical issue.
Dr. Martínez stated that cervical cancer and its treatment are “not a simple matter of medicine, but politics of culture as well.” There are pervading notions that class, race, gender, and ethnicity are more influential than factors of hygiene or access to medical attention. Qualifying words such as “ideal” and “appropriate” pepper the language surrounding cervical cancer prevention, with no attempt to define what exactly a phrase such as “ideal weight” means for these women.
In her experiences in Venezuela, Dr. Martínez witnessed many interactions between patient and doctor and found that she was anything but a “neutral observer.” She recounted how she would frequently utilize her white lab coat to assert power in the office, noting that she received more respect from the doctors and could obtain faster treatment for patients when she donned the coat. Through conversations with these female patients, Dr. Martínez discovered that many of the perceptions the male doctors held were self-fulfilling prophecies rather than valid factors. For instance, doctors claimed they did not tell women when they tested positive for cervical cancer because they could not understand what was happening or that they would refuse treatment if informed. In reality, the women felt their exams were rushed and that they were not free to ask any questions of their doctors.
Dr. Martínez returned to Venezuela in 2008 to determine if there had been many, if any, changes made to the testing and treatment process. Promiscuity and economic standing still played a central role in the perceived risk factors, but more focus was being paid to the role of hygiene than before. Additionally, Hugo Chavez announced that March 26 would be National Day of Cervical Cancer Prevention, suggesting that the treatment of the disease could be vested in the government’s own perception of disease in general.
A brief period of question and answer followed Dr. Martínez’s lecture, allowing several students to comment on the relevance the lecture had in U.S. culture and question further into more specific topics. One question directed to Dr. Martínez inquired into the preconceived ideas the Venezuelan doctors hold and how those impact their treatment of their patients. Dr. Martínez was quick to state that “the doctors aren’t bad people. They are simply a product of their society.” She cites the traditionally neoliberal politics in Venezuela as the reason behind the pervasiveness of these misconceptions. Dr. Didier, head of the Sexuality & Gender Institute at Millersville University, suggested a follow-up study for Dr. Martínez, or a similarly interested colleague, in the area of perceptions surrounding prostate cancer.
Dr. Martínez was also a guest on WLCH 91.3 Radio Centro, a local bilingual radio station. She additionally spoke in two Latino Studies classes with Dr. Mahaffey on Tuesday.
Dr. Martínez is not done, either. She plans to return to Venezuela at some point to continue her research and see what can be done to help move the field into a more educated and progressive approach to cervical cancer.