By: Rachel Neha Shaw
The (In)visible Organ is the Duke University’s Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies’ (GWHT) storytelling initiative to destigmatize the cervix and female reproductive anatomy in research, design, and medicine. GWHT has created a film that dives into the development of the Callascope, the reflections and art based on the women who first tried it, and the initial impacts of the device and its use. The film explores the influences of technology and human-centered design on healthcare, perceptions of the female body, and breaking down structural and societal barriers surrounding reproductive health.
The film, The (In)visible Organ, dives
deeply into several key issues that surround the fight for cervical cancer prevention and reproductive health dialogue: disparities in cervical cancer care, destigmatizing the cervix, cervical health awareness, equity and social justice principles in STEM, and using the arts as a facilitator in difficult conversations.
The cervix, alongside the female reproductive system as a whole, is often surrounded with shame and stigma, but health issues involving this organ impact more individuals than one may realize. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), approximately 500,000 women worldwide are affected by cervical cancer. In 2018, 311,000 women died of cervical cancer. The ACS projects that within the United States, in 2021, about 14,480 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed, and about 4,290 women will die from cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is the fourth most common cancer for women globally.
Despite these numbers, the WHO describes cervical cancer as “one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer” when diagnosed, with early detection and effective management. While the tools to combat cervical cancer exist, their accessibility and availability remain sparse, Technology to diagnose and treat the disease proves expensive and difficult for physicians and hospitals to access, creating inequities as women are unable to afford treatment options or take large amounts of time to travel for examinations. Thus, GWHT began to ask why so many preventable, premature deaths to cervical cancer continue to occur.
The stigma surrounding the cervix plays a large role in lack of available and used treatment options for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer has largely received little discussion and people rarely speak of it in common conversation because of its association with HPV, which has long been seen and stigmatized as a disease of sexually promiscuous people. However, HPV affects most adults and is actually quite prevalent. Cervical cancer’s widespread impact has yielded surprisingly little attention, so increasing dialogue on the need for prevention and treatment measures serves as a major solution to the many deaths resulting from this disease.
As GWHT presses onward in the fight against cervical cancer, the Center fuels its STEM innovation with the underlying principles of equity and social justice. The (In)visible Organ best illustrates this work in action. Beyond just STEM, The (In)visible Organ also tackles the stigma surrounding the cervix and overall reproductive health using the arts and the connections between STEM and the arts.
When discussing how art and the film itself can be used as a tool to diminish cultural and perceptual barriers to reproductive health dialogue, the co-curator of The (In)visible Organ’s art exhibit, Adair Jones, said that “art should always function as a tool or toy to provoke the viewer to ask questions or play with their preconceptions.” When addressing audience reactions to the film itself or the ideas and art within the film, she hopes “that if a piece made them think “AGH!” and that thought continued into ‘What makes it AGH? What do I understand this to be? What do I not understand?’ I hope that these questions were reached and that some of them led to the destigmatization of reproductive health as the viewer toyed around with their thoughts. I believe the goal of the exhibit and the goal of the art would be missed if the viewer only thought “AGH!” and then moved on.”
GWHT has hosted screenings of The (In)visible Organ among students and groups across high schools and universities across the country, including the Texas Christian University DEI Club, Winston-Salem State University Residence Life, North Carolina State University Premedical Honor Society, Northeastern University AMWA (American Medical Women’s Association), Penn State MAPS (Minority Association of Pre- Medical Students), and the University of Connecticut OBGYN Interest Group. We hope to continue to share the film and the conversations it yields with people everywhere to provide education about reproductive health and the use of art as a tool for empowering women.
If this film and the initiative’s mission sounds like an endeavor you would be interested in pursuing alongside us, we would be honored to work with your school or organization to begin discussions about reproductive health and screen The (In)visible Organ. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.