Women’s Health Issues: News from This Week

It’s only Wednesday, and already, this has not been a good week for women’s health.

As many of you know, the Planned Parenthood defunding debate continues. Sen. Schumer called H.R. 3 "dead on arrival" in the Senate, but pro-life Republicans show no sign of relenting. The New York Times has dubbed this a war on women. Not to mention the fetus “testifying” today in Ohio’s state legislature.

However, women’s health issues extend beyond reproduction, as this week’s news clearly demonstrates.

Remember the recent research saying women’s abuse of alcohol was on the rise? Apparently, the same is true for smoking. Research in 74 countries found that in countries where women have greater status, women tend to smoke in increasing numbers. While I applaud nations working to foster gender equity, they also need to acknowledge the accompanying health problems. Hopefully, this study will prompt further action on health issues female smokers face.  

Researchers also found links between obesity and more deadly forms of breast cancer. According to the study, women who are overweight have a 35%  higher risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer, a very aggressive version of the disease. Because standard breast cancer drugs do not treat triple-negative breast cancer, this form of the disease has higher rates of mortality. The media and medical establishment portray breast cancer as treatable due to high survival rates and ability to operate. Yet research like this indicates we need to continue to take it seriously. 

Another risk affects both men and women: yesterday, scientists revealed that half of men may be infected with HPV (thanks, Jezebel, for the link). HPV, spread through sexual contact, is best known as the cause of some types of cervical cancer. However, the virus can also cause anal, penile, head and neck cancers. This just makes the HPV vaccine that much more important for both men and women.

Finally, a report from the American Heart Association said that women are underrepresented in heart-device studies. Two-thirds of the participants in the medical trials examined were men. Other studies omitted the gender of research subjects altogether. These skewed statistics raise questions about the safety of the devices, as women may react differently than men to their presence. Women and minorities are frequently absent in medical research although they represent a significant proportion of the population. These heart studies were in violation of FDA rules. The agency should take these regulations seriously and condemn those researchers who fail to meet them.

When put together, this research describes a dizzying array of problems: heart issues, STIs, and breast cancer. Nor can we ignore the health risks affiliated with smoking. Women’s health issues can be very complex, as research like this shows us. Yet this complexity must encourage scientists and the government to take these issues more seriously, not less.

As things stand, women’s health problems are often ignored or underfunded. These studies show that women’s issues are receiving some attention. However, it is not enough to find connections between health problems. We must also work to create solutions. Now that we know the risks, we must make serious investments of time, energy, and money. Women’s health problems are just as serious as men’s, and we need to see an acknowledgement of this fact.

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  • About 10 years ago, Dr. Laura Berman (http://www.drlauraberman.com/public/index.aspx) and her sister, who is a psychologist, had a very frank TV show addressing issues of women’s sexuality. Around that time I read an article by her in which she asserted that very little research had been done on the nerves involved in female sexual response. This becomes an issue (and, indeed, I know a woman for whom this is an issue), when hysterectomies are given to women and these nerves are severed and made dysfunctional.

    Doctors remedying all manner of health problems, including fibroids, want to go for the hysterectomy: “Well, since you don’t need your uterus anymore…” (I was in my 40s at the time). I know this from personal experience as well as from many other women on a list discussing uterine fibroids. The most often-discussed issue was “Do I really need a hysterectomy? My doctor wants to give me a hysterectomy.” Some of the other treatments for fibroids were equally invasive and destructive of nerves involved in women’s sexual response.

    Fast-forward to my 50s: fibroids so severe that bleeding during menstruation made me afraid to go out of the house. I declined invitations to social events for fear of massive bleed-through. So, I went to see the foremost woman gyn where I live. “How about a nice, laparoscopic hysterectomy? It’s hardly invasive! It’s my specialty! I’m known all over the world for this procedure! We leave your ovaries intact!” I felt like I was on a hysterectomy conveyor belt. The doctor even called me to “discuss” any questions I had about the procedure. I declined, knowing that menopause wasn’t far off and that would be the end of it.

    I know women who have had hysterectomies who think it was the greatest thing they ever did and report no problems. But I’m biased: I don’t trust Western medicine. I think it lives to invade rather than to treat. I think every surgeon wants to perform surgery, and this has been my experience. If you go to a surgeon for a problem, s/he will want to perform surgery, end of story.

    Why no mapping of the female sexual nervous system? Why indeed? Maybe because at the time all the researchers were men? Ya think? Get thee to a medical school, sister!

  • Christina Black

    It is terrifying how often doctors want to perform surgery or use experimental medications considering how little we still know about the human body. I agree, this seems to be especially true with issues at the OB-GYN. I’ve been told a number of times by different OB-GYNs that there just isn’t that much research on different hormonal or other gynecological problems women have. My primary care physician has told me that “A lot of times, we never really know what the problem is, but things just sort of figure themselves out after you have your first child.” Needless to say, this was not an acceptable response to me, nor do I think that the equivalent man’s problem would be left in that state of knowledge.

    And of course, any problems women have with sex (pain, lack of pleasure, etc.) are taken as “normal” or something for which nothing can be done. I read a few months ago about a female version of Viagra being worked on. Yes, women’s bodies or complicated, but (any issues you have with Viagra aside) why has this taken so long? The male version has been around since 1998.

    I read an article a few weeks ago about how even in the medical profession, women are discriminated against in their salaries. I know the same is true for research money and access to facilities. This must also play a role in deterring some women who would like to perform research into women’s health issues.