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Cheeky calendar has a serious message

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: December 14, 2009

CAMPAIGNER: Fabia Brackenbury is campaigning to raise awareness of vulva cancer and is supported by a 'naked' charity calendar LAURENCE UNDERHILL EE071209_LU03_09

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EVERY woman has one, yet for some reason the vulva is just not spoken about. Hoping to change that is

62-year-old Fabia Brackenbury.

Fabia is a sufferer of a life-long vulva skin disorder and founder of the Vulval Health Awareness Campaign.

And what better way to get women's attention than getting 12 men to strip off for a charity calendar?

The idea came from Sue Butt, of St James, who has had vulval cancer twice, and the calendar was put together by Fabia's son, Rob Blinkhorn, a photographer from St James, who managed to persuade some motorbike contacts to pose naked on their bikes.

As well as raising money for the charity, Fabia, from the city centre, hopes it will raise awareness of the vulva and promote self-examination.

The vulva is made up of genital organs that lie outside your body. The skin of the vulva can be affected by many things such as infections, thrush, skin diseases, pre-cancerous cells and skin cancer.

In 1994, when Fabia was 48-years-old, she developed a skin condition called lichen sclerosus which affects around one in 300 people, the majority being women over 50.

Fabia, who says the condition can be misdiagnosed as thrush, explained: "It's a complex chronic inflammatory genital skin condition which is incurable and the cause is not known. It also affects men, but puts women at about a 20 per cent risk of developing vulval cancer.

"The main symptoms are chronic itching, swelling, inflammation and the skin can tear like paper cuts. It is easily managed by using a very strong steroid ointment.

"It's incredibly psychologically and emotionally difficult and for those who want to pursue a sex life, the issues are very profound.

"The affect on my personnel life was very damaging. As a result of it I lost a 30-year marriage.

"When you're living with lichen sclerosus you're dealing with all kinds of things you can't talk to friends and family about. You feel very angry, isolated, frightened and like a freak. When I was diagnosed there was no information about it all.

"It was presented to me that I had a pre-cancerous condition and it was not explained that it was only a small risk so for the next two years I was convinced I was either going to get cancer or die so I made no permanent arrangements."

It inspired Fabia to set up the National Lichen Sclerosus Support Group in 1997, which later developed into the Vulval Health Awareness Campaign. Fabia, who has been interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour and appeared on Channel 4's Embarrassing Illnesses series, said: "The treatment has improved my life 100 per cent and I am able to lead a normal life. Now I don't even think about it.

"Women are educated about thrush and breast cancer and now know more about cervical cancer since Jade Goody was diagnosed with it, yet no one talks about vulval cancer.

"Unless women are aware it can happen and know what to look for there is a danger they will be diagnosed late which is really awful as the surgery and treatment is much more invasive.

"I think the reason is because it's in an area that's not talked about."

Copies of the calendar, priced £10, are available by calling 01392 211497 or visit www.vhac.org.

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