Under the Hood

Survivors Of Sexual Assault Face Greater Risk For Cervical Cancer And Other Deadly Diseases

Sexual Violence
Ovarian cancer, liver disease, and other deadly complications are more common among victims of sexual violence, finds new study. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Each year 300,000 Americans are sexually victimized — that's one person every two minutes. Not only do those subjected to sexual violence face potential psychological, emotional, and physical effects, but according to the results of a new 10-year study, they may also be at a greater risk for a laundry list of diseases.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen recruited 2,501 women who reported sexual assault at the Centre for Victims of Sexual Assault in Copenhagen, and an additional 10,004 women who had not experienced sexual assault. They analyzed medical histories for both groups of women using the National Health Registry in order to see how many times they visited their doctor over the course of 10 years. And this way, they could also see how participants' health was prior to the assault.

"The susceptibility of women exposed to a sexual assault is demonstrated by increased morbidity before as well as after the assault," said the study’s lead author Dr. Mie-Louise Larsen, a researcher at the Centre for Victims of Sexual Assault Department.

While women who had never experienced a known assault were at a lower risk for a number of diseases, survivors of sexual assault were at greater risk both before and after their assault for circulatory and respiratory diseases, epilepsy, liver disease, and cervical cancer.

Researchers can't yet explain why survivors experience diseases at a higher rate, but according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, survivors often withstand a long recovery period after the assault, which may increase their risk for sexually transmitted infections, self-harm, depression, substance use, eating disorders, sleep disorders, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The emotional toll that sexual violence takes on survivors often leads to PTSD’s characteristic feelings of anxiety, stress, or fear. And according to the American Psychological Association, chronic fear can plague the body, which weakens the immune system. So the stress of an assault might make it difficult to fight off infection, ultimately opening the door for disease.

The feeling of constant danger, experiencing flashbacks, and having dreams or intrusive thought can all be catalysts for stress. While symptoms usually occur within three months of a traumatic incident, it's not uncommon for survivors to continually relive symptoms, such as a flashback, or frightening thoughts.

The National Institute of Mental Health recommends a combination of medications and psychotherapy to talk through the crisis with a trained counselor. If not, the symptoms could persist and continue to increase the victim’s risk of disease.

Source: Larsen ML, Hilden M, Skovlund CW, and Lidegaard O. Somatic health of 2,500 women examined at a sexual assault center over 10 years. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica. 2016.

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