Celebrating Healthy Women


August is ‘women’s month’ in South Africa
and it’s a time to celebrate women and everything that makes us unique and therefore it’s a perfect time to focus on health issues that relate specifically to women. Over the centuries, women’s lives have changed dramatically. Historically, life was particularly difficult for most women. Childbirth was risky and often led to the death of both the infant and the mother. In fact, many women didn’t even live long enough to worry about menopause or old age. Today, however, women are living much longer and therefore they need to be equipped to manage their health and have access to knowledge related to the full spectrum of women’s health issues.

Essentially, women’s health refers to the branch of medicine that focuses on the treatment and diagnosis of diseases and conditions that affect a woman’s physical and emotional well-being. These include birth control, sexual health, gynecological issues, osteoporosis, female-specific cancers, depression and menopause. It is important that every woman chooses a doctor who recognizes that physical health and mental health are closely connected; poor emotional health can lead to overeating, headaches, weakened immune systems and other ailments whilst neglect of physical symptoms can lead to depression.

Health issues that affect women

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in women and the second main cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. Awareness of the symptoms and the need for screening are important ways of reducing one’s risk. Whilst risk factors can be genetic, some lifestyle factors, such as increased alcohol intake, make it more likely to occur. Symptoms include a lump or thickening of the breast and changes to the skin or the nipple.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

Affecting 10 percent of women of reproductive age, this condition causes small cysts to form on the ovaries during ovulation. These cysts may be nothing more than a nuisance, causing occasional slight pain, or they may become infected and rupture, possibly damaging a woman’s uterus and, thereby, her fertility. Women with PCOS are also more prone to weight gain, abnormal periods, acne, and excess hair growth.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis affects the strength and resiliency of the bones, which can lead to fractures and bone breaks later on in life. Other risk factors include age, having a slight frame, eating a diet that’s low in calcium or vitamin D, smoking, and excessive alcohol use. Osteoporosis can be prevented through an adequate calcium intake and doing any weight-bearing exercises.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition in which the layer of tissue that normally covers the inside of the uterus, grows outside it. Most often this occurs on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and tissue around the uterus and ovaries; however, in rare cases it may also occur in other parts of the body. The main symptoms are pelvic pain, which mostly occurs during menstruation, and infertility, though painful intercourse is also common.

Thyroid disease

Because of its general symptoms (weight gain, dry skin, weak nails, constipation, and aches and pains), thyroid disease can often go undiagnosed or be mistaken for depression, hormonal imbalances or even menopause. The symptoms of thyroid disease take time to develop and are often gradual, making this illness difficult to diagnose.

Menopause and HRT

Menopause refers to the time when a woman stops having menstrual periods. As a result of the hormonal changes associated with this transition, many women experience a variety of symptoms such as vaginal dryness, painful intercourse, decreased bone density, mood swings, weight gain, loss of interest in sex and hot flashes. If your symptoms cause discomfort, your doctor may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is the most effective treatment for menopause symptoms.

Health screenings for women

Staying healthy takes some effort and vigilance and part of that effort is ensuring that you go for regular and appropriate screening tests, which are used to detect potential health problems when they’re still treatable. The various tests recommended for women are usually based on a woman’s age, but your doctor is the best resource for advising you on what tests you should receive.

Use the following as a guide:

Pap smear: Regardless of sexual history, women aged 21 and older should have a Pap smear every three years. This test looks for signs of cervical cancer. After the age of 40, screening should take place yearly.

Breast cancer screening: This consists of clinical exams and mammograms. If you have family members with breast cancer, your doctor will screen you to see if you are at risk for cancer that is linked to certain genes. After the age of 40, ensure that you go for yearly mammograms.

Physical exam: This entails a detailed head-to-toe health assessment that could include questions about depression, alcohol and drug use, diet and exercise, smoking, vaccination history and sexual history.

Cholesterol test: Women in their 20s should get a baseline reading for cholesterol levels to see whether they are at risk of heart disease. After age 45, cholesterol screening is crucial, as heart disease risk increases with age.

Blood pressure screening: Because high blood pressure can lead to other complications, it should be checked every two years. If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you should also be screened for diabetes.

Colon cancer screening: Women over the age of 40 should be screened for colon cancer. Possible tests include a yearly stool test; flexible sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years); colonoscopy (every 10 years); and a double-contrast barium enema (every 5 years).

Bone density test: Women aged 65 and older should be screened for osteoporosis.

Whilst we celebrate communities of women this month, remember that it’s never too late to take control of your wellness. Early detection for female-specific cancers and other preventable diseases save thousands of lives each year and therefore we urge you to engage, educate and empower the women around you. After all, healthy women engender healthy families, and healthy families lead to healthy communities.

Published on August 7, 2017