Women’s health: Making self-care a priority

Women’s health: Making self-care a priority

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Women are known to be great multi-taskers, taking on several responsibilities in and around the home front. On the average, an adult woman automatically juggles multiple traditionally recognised roles and relationships in her life. This does not exclude the need for women to be breadwinners, primarily due to declining economic conditions globally; presenting an additional responsibility for the already busy woman.

With advancement in age, a woman’s priorities begin to shift from herself to others around her. The need to maintain a balance has oftentimes left women neglecting the most important elements of their highly productive lives.

The popular use of cosmetic products for cover-up purposes may be concealing skin deficiencies that may be indicative of poor health conditions such as malignant skin cancers, stress-related wrinkles, vitamin deficiencies and many more. Considering the impact of technological advancements, industrialisation and civilisation, which have brought about global warming, increased amounts of radioactive elements in the environment, cytotoxic substances, increased consumption of processed foods, and an increasing amount of psychosocial disturbances, it becomes imperative for the today’s woman to pay more attention to her physical and mental health, through routine wellness screenings.

Several health conditions pose a threat to the productive life of the average woman. Cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death among middle aged women. Fortunately, with the invention and adoption of the Pap smear (Papanicolaou test) which identifies abnormal cells in the cervix, the death rate has decreased tremendously. This has also enabled the early detection of HPV (the most common sexually transmitted infection) which increases the risk for all cases of cervical cancer. Current gynaecology guidelines recommend that women from age 21 to 65 have a routine screening Pap test every three years, or sooner if they have a history of cancer, or abnormal cervical cells.

Another major life-saving proposition for middle aged women is early detection of breast cancer through screening Mammograms. Globally, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer found in women. With early detection and more available treatment options, the chance of breast cancer survival increases significantly. From the age of 40, women are encouraged to have yearly screening Mammograms to detect the presence of tumors or abnormal growths in the breast. The American Cancer Society predicts that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Women with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to start having mammograms sooner than they turn 40.

The importance of annual physical examinations cannot be overemphasized. Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Complete Metabolic Panels (CMP) can help detect abnormal blood levels, thyroid abnormalities, low levels of Vitamin D, abnormal cholesterol levels, diabetes, kidney abnormalities, liver problems and much more.

While there are several health conditions that can be picked up from abnormal blood levels, low thyroid levels can be responsible for excessive weight gain due to reduced metabolism, among other symptoms. A study from John Hopkins university has shown that abnormal levels of calcium and vitamin D has been linked to the development of certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, and several autoimmune diseases. Calcium and Vitamin D supplementation can ultimately address some of these deficiencies.

Heart disease is another common cause of death in women due to the subtle nature of its symptoms. In most women, chest pain which is a major sign of a heart attack is not usually noticeable, as it may not always be severe. Women often describe chest pain before a heart attack as pressure-like or as chest tightness. Besides, it is possible to have a heart attack without chest pain. Other symptoms such as neck, upper back, upper abdominal, jaw or shoulder pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, dizziness or lightheadedness, heartburn and sweating, may be vaguely felt in women who run a very busy schedule, and have developed a high tolerance for pain and discomfort.

Several hormonal changes which are known to cause psychological problems, can be addressed with early detection and management. A Harvard university study has shown that changes in the levels of female hormones can result in temporary mood changes, and symptoms of depression. The years leading up to menopause and the transition itself can bring changes to a woman’s body and mind.

Early detection of diabetes and high cholesterol can prevent the occurrence of heart disease, peripheral arterial disease and kidney failures.

As a woman, committing to self-care and routine medical screening is not a selfish adventure. It should rather be a deserving and rewarding venture, a prioritised attempt towards being physically and mentally available to carry out your responsibilities effectively.

Ms Declan is a patient educator, nursing faculty, family and clinical research nurse practitioner based in Houston Texas, USA.

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