Maintaining good health is a must everyone should be concerned with, male or female, young or old. That old adage, “Health is wealth” is a truth that holds firm anytime, anywhere, for anyone. However, there are health issues women, specifically, should be aware of so they can take appropriate action for diagnosis, prevention and cure.
Caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus or HPV and contracted through intercourse, a woman may be infected with HPV at some point in her life but not develop cervical cancer. However, when not detected and treated early, the infection can encourage growth of abnormal cells in the cervix, thus, lead to the cancer. Symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding after sex, abnormalities in vaginal discharge, pain during sex, bleeding after going through menopause and pelvic pain. Regular pap tests conducted during pelvic exams can prevent this disease. Depending on the stage of the cancer at detection, treatment options include radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy. Vaccines are also available to prevent contraction of HPV.
Although there are recorded occurrences of breast cancer in men, breast cancer is most common in women and is one of the most common cancers a woman can suffer from. Breast cancer begins from the infection of cells in breast tissues and cells including the milk ducts, lymph nodes and lobules (the glands that produce milk). Depending on the severity and size of tumor growth, a woman with breast cancer may be advised to undergo radiation therapy, chemotherapy and/or mastectomy (surgical removal of one or both breasts) in order to prevent further invasion of cancer cells. A lifestyle change is also encouraged to help arrest the spread of cancer. These preventive factors include a healthy diet (avoiding processed food and all types of meat), regular exercise and taking certain medicines to treat a precancerous condition.
Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer
Endometrial cancer begins in the layer of cells that form the lining (endometrium) of the uterus. Other types of cancer can form in the uterus, including uterine sarcoma, but they are much less common than endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer is often detected at an early stage because it frequently produces abnormal vaginal bleeding, which prompts women to see their doctors. If endometrial cancer is discovered early, removing the uterus surgically often cures endometrial cancer.
There are two types of maternal deaths: direct, which is the result of a complication of the pregnancy, delivery or management of the two; and indirect, a pregnancy-related death wherein the patient has a preexisting or newly developed health problem unrelated to pregnancy. Causes of maternal mortality include severe bleeding and obstructed labor. However, with the easy access women now have for maternal and prenatal care by obstetrics care professionals, for family planning, and for skilled attendance during childbirth, maternal mortality is almost entirely preventable.
Sexual and reproductive health problems are responsible for one third of health issues for women between the ages of 15 and 44 years. Unsafe sex is a major risk factor – particularly among women and girls in developing countries. This is why it is so important to get services to the 222 million women who aren’t getting the contraception services they need.
While diabetes is generally a genetically transmitted condition, women have been known to develop gestational diabetes which, when left unchecked, may lead to miscarriage or birth defects. Women who develop gestational diabetes are also more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes later in life. Diabetes and its complications may lead to disability or worse, death.
Osteoporosis, or thinning bones, can result in painful fractures. Risk factors for osteoporosis include aging, being female, low body weight, low sex hormones or menopause, smoking, and some medications. Prevention and treatment include the intake of calcium and vitamin D, regular exercise, and osteoporosis medications.
Heart disease may be congenital (in-born or genetic) or developed through indulgence in a very bad lifestyle (smoking, unhealthy diet, too much stress). Although more men die of heart disease, women tend to be underdiagnosed until such time that it has become too late to treat them upon discovery of the ailment. Death from heart disease isn’t really the big problem here. It’s premature death and disability.
Evidence suggests that women are more prone than men to experience anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints – physical symptoms that cannot be explained medically. Depression is the most common mental health problem for women and suicide a leading cause of death for women under 60. Helping sensitise women to mental health issues, and giving them the confidence to seek assistance, is vital.
Three decades into the AIDS epidemic, it is young women who bear the brunt of new HIV infections. Too many young women still struggle to protect themselves against sexual transmission of HIV and to get the treatment they require. This also leaves them particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis – one of the leading causes of death in low-income countries of women 20–59 years. Other than HIV and HPV (which, as mentioned, causes cervical cancer), it is also important to put emphasis in preventing and treating other STDs like gonorrhoea, chlamydia and syphilis. Untreated syphilis is responsible for more than 200,000 stillbirths and early fetal deaths every year, and for the deaths of over 90 000 newborns.
Women can be subject to a range of different forms of violence, but physical and sexual violence – either by a partner or someone else – is particularly invidious. Today, one in three women under 50 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner, or non-partner sexual violence – violence which affects their physical and mental health in the short and long-term. It’s important for health workers to be alert to violence so they can help prevent it, as well as provide support to people who experience it.
In all cases, the most important aspect to consider is to be sensitive to the whispers of our body. Prevention is key – a healthy lifestyle, regular visits to the doctor for check-ups and being properly informed about health, diseases, prevention and cure. Know the professionals who can provide help: doctors, health care professionals; in the case of VAW, law enforcement officers and social workers. Always have a way to be in touch with family and friends who can be present at a moment’s notice to help.
Health is wealth. This can’t be emphasized enough.