NHS drops the word 'women' from internet guidance on female cancers

NHS drops the word ‘women’ from internet guidance on ovarian, womb and cervical cancers in bid to be inclusive – but is warned the move risks harming patients

  • Women is dropped by NHS to refer to cancers that only affect female population
  • Cervical, womb and ovarian online health advice no longer mentions women
  • To see women being used, patients need to click further on the NHS website 

The NHS has dropped the word ‘women’ from its main online health advice for those being treated for cervical, womb and ovarian cancers. 

Cervical cancer is now described on the health service’s website as ‘a cancer that’s found anywhere in the cervix’ while womb cancer affects ‘the womb’. 

To see the word ‘women’ being used to talk about female illness, patients have to click further into the website 

England’s NHS website – which is often the first port of call for people checking symptoms – previously used the word ‘women’ to talk about female cancers. 

It used to say: ‘Cancer of the womb (uterine or endometrial cancer) is a common cancer that affects the female reproductive system. It’s more common in women who have been through the menopause.’

But now the NHS website writes: ‘Most womb cancer usually starts in the lining of the womb (endometrium), this is also known as endometrial cancer.’

The move has come under fire, according to the Times, from researchers into birth and childcare who worry that those with poor language skills who already have ‘worse health outcomes’ could find it difficult to understand the NHS website. 

Dr Karleen Gribble of Western Sydney University, lead author of a recent review on the importance of sexed language in birth and childcare, said she thinks ‘desexed language’ is ‘well intentioned’ but could put health at ‘risk’ 

She did acknowledge that there were some parts – subheadings that still used the word women – but added: ‘The very first thing needs to be who does this apply to – who needs to listen to the rest of this? Then you can give them information.’

Other examples on the NHS website – part of NHS Digital that now is under NHS England – include referring to ovarian cancer as affecting ‘the two organs that store the eggs needed to make babies’ and over 50s. 

It previously said: ‘Ovarian cancer, or cancer of the ovaries, is one of the most common types of cancer in women.

‘The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in the tummy that are connected to the womb and store a woman’s supply of eggs.

‘Ovarian cancer mainly affects women who have been through the menopause (usually over the age of 50), but it can sometimes affect younger women.’

Cervical cancer is also seen as people who only have ‘a cervix’ which would previously referred to women as well 

Others like Ovarian Cancer Action – who raise awareness for this type of cancer – have not adopted this terminology and instead say: ‘Ovarian Cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women with around 7,000 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year.’ 

Dr Gribble in her paper ‘Effective communication about pregnancy, birth, lactation, breastfeeding and newborn care : the importance of sexed language’ said ‘desexing language’ could have huge issues. 

She write: ‘Those who are young, with low literacy or education, with an intellectual disability, from conservative religious backgrounds, or being communicated to in their non-native language are at increased risk of misunderstanding desexed language 

‘However, even women with high levels of education may not be familiar with female reproductive processes and terms of female anatomy and physiology and so may not understand some desexed terms.

‘They may not know, for example, that ‘a person with a cervix’ is a woman and refers to them.’

She also wrote that referring to women by their body parts could risk ‘othering’ and ‘dehumanising’ them.

‘For example, the term ‘pregnant woman’ identifies the subject as a person experiencing a physiological state, whereas ‘gestational carrier’ or ‘birther’ marginalizes their humanity,’ the paper says. 

Other examples on the website include referring to ovarian cancer as affecting ‘the two organs that store the eggs needed to make babies’ and over 50s

A source at the Government told the Times this could be ‘harmful’. 

They added: ‘All health advice is written carefully but it would not be right to erase either women or men from information relating to their biological sex, in a sincere attempt to accommodate those who have a different gender identity.’

A spokeswoman for NHS Digital said: ‘It is not correct to say that there is no mention of women on the ovarian, womb and cervical cancer pages. We have updated the pages as part of our routine review of web pages to keep them in line with the best clinical evidence, and make them as helpful as possible to everyone who needs them.’ 

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