Shining the Spotlight on Women's Health
As all of our favorite sports teams, companies, food brands, and buildings light things up pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to talk about breast health and more! Take some time this month to tune in to your body and mind, and make any appointments you need to make sure your overall health is in good shape. And since we all need to support each other, remind your mother, sisters, and friends to check their own health as well.
Breast Health & Breast Cancer Detection
While getting a mammogram probably isn't on any woman's list of things she just can't wait to do, it definitely shouldn't be ignored. As unpleasant as it may be to have your boobs compressed into an X-ray machine for examination, the importance outweighs the brief discomfort.
Most women should start getting mammograms between age 40 - 44. Your doctor may want you to start younger if you have a close family history of breast cancer or other underlying risk factors. Women age 45- 54 should get a mammogram every year. Women 55 and older can switch to every 2 years, or may continue to get one every year if their doctor desires.
While mammography is of great importance in the fight for early detection of breast cancer, it's not the only tool we have. Beginning around age 25, women should begin to perform a self-examination of their breasts monthly. It is ideal to do it around the same time every month - about 2-3 days after your period. Try doing it while in the shower and in front of the mirror once you get out of the shower. Follow the steps and the motions in the graphic below as you palpate and visually examine your breasts for any changes or abnormalities. Around 57% of breast cancer survivors discovered their breast cancer through a means other than mammography, either through self-examination or accidentally. Self-examination is an important tool for the early detection of breast cancer, especially for women younger than the age of introducing mammograms.
Screening for other cancers
In addition to regularly checking for breast cancer, there are other cancer screenings women need to stay on top of as well. Cervical cancer (discussed more below) is another cancer that specifically affects women. Other fairly common cancers such as skin, colorectal, and endometrial cancers can often be detected early enough to have a good prognosis for treatment. Women should monitor their own health and see their doctor regularly for physicals. If you develop any symptoms in any part of your body that seem abnormal to you, see your doctor immediately. See more about the guidelines and tips for cancer screenings throughout your life here.
Reproductive & Gynecological Health
Why see a Gynecologist?
Regardless of whether or not you ever plan to become pregnant, your reproductive organs require special & regular attention. All women, even young women once they begin menstruation, should have an annual well-woman exam to check for any gynecological health concerns. While some general practitioners are certified and capable of performing well-woman exams, many women prefer to see an OB-GYN who specializes in reproductive and gynecological health. Many women start seeing a gynecologist in their teens, and continue all the way through child-bearing years and into their peri- and pre-menopause years.
What to expect
Gynecologists specialize in the organs & tissues of the reproductive system and female genital area. Many are also obstetricians who take care of women throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Gynecologists are experts in many facets of women's health. At most well-woman visits for sexually active adult patients, they screen for cancers, test for STIs, assess your overall health, and check for any abnormal menstrual conditions. They also discuss and offer birth control options, and can be your first line of defense if you encounter any sexual difficulties; there may be underlying health causes for conditions such as low libido, pain with intercourse, concerning vaginal odor, or irregular menstrual bleeding.
HPV & Cervical cancer screenings
It is important to see your gynecologist once a year so they can keep a close eye on any changes to your gynecological health. Pap smears and HPV screenings are performed at these visits, and these tests can detect forms of HPV - Human Papillomavirus, a very, very common viral STI, which has more adverse effects on women than it does on men. HPV frequently causes no symptoms and is cleared from the body on its own, but a few strains may cause cervical cancer down the line. Getting screened for HPV and abnormal cervical cells annually, or as suggested by your doctor, is a way to catch any precancerous cells before they become a problem.
Is something not right?
It is also important to make an appointment with your gyno if you are experiencing any abnormal symptoms or concerns such as changes to your menstrual cycle, abdominal pain, or physical changes to the vulvar or vaginal areas. These are often signs of common, simple, and treatable conditions, but may signal something more serious and should be looked at immediately. While no one looks forward to their annual visit to the gynecologist, it is an important tool in maintaining your overall health as a woman.
Mental & Emotional Health
Mental Health Care IS Health Care
Today, Sunday, October 10th, is Mental Health Awareness Day... what a perfect time to talk about the mental and emotional health of women. While disorders and issues with mental health can affect people of all genders, there is still a general stigma around women (and men) seeking support and treatment for mental & emotional health disorders. Women all over the world struggle with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, ADHD, PTSD, and more...and all too often, they suffer in silence. These conditions can make daily life and everyday activities feel overwhelming and draining, even if you can't put your finger on a cause. Mental health care providers are often able to get to the root of your problems. Once you have a diagnosis, you can work towards treatment, and life can begin to feel like less of a struggle again.
Self-care is not Enough
Self-care has become an internet buzzword for a range of activities you can due to "cure" any emotional challenges or mental health struggles that may ail you. A lot of media women see online makes it seem like "self-care" is the answer to all of these concerns, but it often goes much, much deeper than that. Many mental health conditions are caused by chemical imbalances within the brain. All the bubble baths, journaling, and meditation in the world won't fix that. What can help is seeking the assistance of mental health professionals. Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and social workers are all especially trained in recognizing, diagnosing, and treating mental and emotional health concerns. Each person's specific needs and experience determine what treatments will be the best fit for them. Talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy with a licensed therapist may often be enough to help with some conditions, while medication is the only way to treat others.
Just had a baby?
Then you may need mental health assistance for the first time in your life. Specific to those who have just given birth, Postpartum depression and anxiety are common very real mental conditions which require prompt diagnosis and treatment. So many women experience postpartum emotional challenges, even if they have never had mental health concerns in the past. Sadly, so few doctors ask about it or even fully understand it, so it often goes ignored or untreated.
The hormonal, physical, and social changes in your body and your life after giving birth are absolutely massive; it's no wonder your brain and body may have trouble adjusting. You can't take care of your baby if your brain is making it impossible to even take care of yourself. It is important to speak up if you are experiencing these difficulties. If your usual doctor isn't able to get you the help you need, ask them to refer someone who will take you seriously, or find a new one on your own with the help of friends who have been through this.
Ending the stigma & seeking help
Women, especially brand new mothers, may feel that seeking treatment for their postpartum depression or anxiety is taboo or frowned upon. The truth is, what you're experiencing is incredibly common and there should be no shame in treating the conditions. There are many safe and effective medications or other therapies for new mothers, even if nursing, that can help get you back to feeling like yourself again. Part of taking care of your children and your family is taking care of yourself. Sadly, women speaking to their doctors about mental health concerns are frequently dismissed as just being overly sensitive, emotional, hysterical, or "faking it", but these needs are very real. Make sure to seek treatment for anything you can't cope with, even if you need to make a little noise to get the assistance you need.
It is long past time for better awareness of and access to mental health supports for ALL people. Especially with the new challenges brought on by dealing with a pandemic over the last year and a half, many, many more people are struggling and need to feel free to reach out for assistance. It's time to work on ditching the stigma surrounding mental health care. If you are sick, like with a sinus infection, you go to your doctor. There's zero shame in that, and that is how it should be for taking care of your mental and emotional health, too. If you are facing any challenges that seem abnormal to you, or even if you just don't feel like yourself anymore, seek help.