Women have serious health issues that require serious care. But we’re desperate for quality medical attention. Many of our increasing health needs are directly linked to systematic problems in our cultures: Among them are sexist views that women are secondary citizens, not worthy of the same respect and regard as men. Further, since women are generally paid over 20% less than men, often in the same jobs, if we’re paid at all, we can’t always afford sufficient medical care.
Crucial to our survival are: public awareness and medical attention to specific health needs of women, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, reproductive health, heart attack, and stroke. And we we need affordable insurance, adequate vaccination, hospitalization, hygiene, holistic health services to help maintain good health, dietary education, food services; and laws to implement proper care.
Many of women’s health issues are largely related to stress. In the U.S., women’s heart attacks have been on the increase in recent years, and are now our leading cause of death. Strokes, high blood pressure, and other related ailments that are linked to stress have also been on the rise, along with growing numbers of women living on their own and often supporting children, while living near poverty level.
Another malady frequently connected to prolonged stress is mental illness. While we’re familiar with our veterans returning home after combat with post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, how many of us aware that multitudes of women have been diagnosed with PTSD, too? In many cases, PTSD is brought about in women who are victims of trauma, such as rape or domestic violence. Another related illness among women is clinical depression, frequently linked to chronic stress as well as trauma.
Unfortunately, mental illness is commonly stigmatized by people who don’t understand that it results from a chemical imbalance, rather than an inherent flaw that somehow diminishes the quality of the individual who experiences its devastating symptoms, such as profound fatigue. Depression compounds the challenges a woman faces, especially if she’s a single mom, or living under other stressful conditions. Add the stigma she faces for her depression as well as the shame she endures following any sexual trauma she may have suffered, and we can begin to imagine her almost insurmountable challenge.
To make matters worse, if a victim of rape becomes pregnant, she’s faced with the shaky choice of raising the child out of wedlock, and quite possibly on her own, or to undergo an abortion, which can be a high-risk procedure, since abortion is still a controversial issue. To take it further, even consensual sex is a high risk for her, since she can contract any one of several forms of STD or Sexually Transmitted Disease, some of which are asymptomatic although they carry severe consequences: one of these is chlamydia, which can render a woman sterile. The HIV/AIDS virus, once linked to homosexual men on an almost exclusive basis, is now striking and killing more women. While it can be treated to prolong life, there is still no known cure.
While the only sure way to avoid STD is to refrain from sex, in reality this isn’t a pat solution to the problem. Women can also contract these infections from married sex and this includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex. While women who chose not to marry —at least early in life—are actually in a majority as compared to married women today, a prejudice still exists against single women, and in particular those who engage in sex outside of marriage. While this is diminishing, the words slut, whore, and tramp are still prevalent in our society. The double standard implicit in this labeling is unjust, especially since men engage in the same behavior with little or no societal consequence. Still, the necessity for appropriate health care for women with STD is undermined because of a collective bias attached to single women engaging in sex—consensual or not. Besides celibacy, using protection during sex is the only solution—and it’s an imperfect one.
Cancer is a disease that takes scores of women’s lives every year. While we’re advancing in finding a cure, we still have work ahead to eradicate this killer. As though the physical pain of cancer isn’t harsh enough, a woman is often forced to suffer the psychological pain of some form of mutilation: for breast cancer it could be the loss one or both breasts; or if she’s stricken with ovarian cancer, she can lose her ovaries as well as other organs relative to her capacity to give birth. This means she must endure deeply personal, highly invasive surgery that can lead her to question her own womanhood. Once again, our culture feeds her profound feelings of inadequacy: In the instance of breast cancer, she’s forced to view her altered body within the context off the premium value society places on youth and physical beauty, as well as the size of a woman’s breasts, as evidenced by the masses of women getting breast implants in an effort to be more alluring. When ovaries are removed in a hysterectomy, the woman is left unable to bear a child. In a culture that still highly values the traditions of marriage and childbearing, her sense of loss is compounded. With more and more women choosing work over matrimony, it’s time to let go to this unfair insistence that a woman must have a child to validate her existence. But still discrimination exists.
It’s clear that women’s health issues are charged with emotional significance. To add to this, many women suffer from an obvious lack of compassion from both men and other women who demonstrate insensitivity to our plight in confronting life-threatening illness. As human beings, women deserve the same respect and right to dignity as men.
First, if you’re a woman who senses that you may have a medical problem, please make your health a priority. Love yourself enough to take care of your own needs and disregard any potential judgment or disapproval from others. You could be saving your own life and I guarantee you it’s worth saving. No one else can walk in your shoes or totally understand your experience. You are number one, and it’s your life and your life alone. If doors are closed to you, don’t give up. Do some research and keep asking questions until you can get answers that help.
But what can the rest of us do to improve the quality of women’s healthcare? As women, the first imperative is that we share our empathy with all other women, not just the ones in our bridge club or those live in our neighborhood. While illness is blind and can strike both women and men at all socioecomonic levels, underserved women may be more likely to be victimized by a general lack of concern as well as the inability to afford or obtain help. We can all reach out by advocating women’s rights to healthcare, and/or by volunteering in some capacity to be of assistance: if all of us do something for just an hour a week, things could change for the better at an exponential level.
If you’re looking for passion and purpose, one venue where you’ll find it in abundance is in educating, inspiring, and supporting the advancement of women. Once of the greatest gifts we can give one another is in offering reasons for women to hope for a better world, and then become active participants in making dreams reality.
Mary Kathryn “M.K.” Jones
Founder of Women Who Walk the Talk™