On the occasion of International Day of Action for Women’s Health (May 28), Alisha Shinde talks to doctors to find out what are the reproductive health issues that females face and what can be done to tackle them.
Just take a painkiller and you will be okay,’ is what Shruti Singh was told every time she experienced painful periods. Later, she googled her problem and when the search engine provided her with pages and pages of health issues, similar to her condition, she got scared. The 22-year-old then decided to get herself checked by a doctor.
“The painful periods were because of PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome). I had been suffering from it for a very long time,” Singh adds.
Avneet Bagga, another young lady, thought the stomach ache during periods was “a result of a reaction to food items that I was eating.” Bagga’s mother told her it could be genetic because when she too had suffered from painful periods during her youth.
“It was not until I fainted while writing an examination that I did some medical tests. I had an acute pain in my lower abdomen and was diagnosed with endometriosis. I had never heard of the term before,” she explains.
These are just a few of the many health stories that we hear these days. What do they tell us? One, that not many of us are aware of the medical complications that we could face. Second, instead of approaching doctors first, we do self-medication. We rely more on the internet which is flooded with both correct and incorrect information. But do we have the expertise to separate the right from the wrong and arrive at a correct diagnosis? Sadly, no.Third, when it comes to reproductive health, women, whether in rural or urban areas, are not comfortable talking about it, even with their gynaecologist.
But the doctors say that it is important for the females to discuss their health with them. They insist that a woman should be concerned about her own well being and make an effort to look after her health.
What the doctors say
As said earlier, many of us Google our ailments, even if it’s a case of simple flu. And with that half-baked knowledge, we approach the healthcare professionals.
Dr Shalaka Shimpi, a Pune- based MD obstetrician and gynaecologist, points out, “After the patients have done their primary research, they make up their mind to come visit us, accompanied by their ‘know it all’ behaviour. This is an alarming trend. Many a times they end up reading the most random symptoms of a disease and believe that it is what they are suffering from.”
Moving on to the issue of women not giving their health a priority, Dr Shimpi says, “Taking care of her health should be each and every woman’s priority, office work can wait. If you don’t take care of your health, no one else will.”
Dr Asmita Potdar, an IVF specialist and gynaecologist, believes that most women, in general, are aware of what’s happening with their body, but they refrain from discussing sexual and reproductive issues with doctors or specialists.
She says, “Women believe that the tests related to any reproductive health issue are painful and they are not comfortable with the idea of getting their private organs examined. As professionals, it is our job to make our patients comfortable.”
Concurs Dr Tamer Seckin, MD gynaecology and endometriosis specialist based in USA. He says that it’s the job of doctors to help their patients. “Women should be supportive of each other. In case she shares her medical problems with her mother, sister or even her grandmother, then they should support her. I would also insist that they also speak, without feeling shy, with their doctors. They should make it a point to visit their gynaecologists regularly for health check-ups,” he adds.
An Ovarian Disorder
There are many diseases which are limited only to women, especially to her reproductive health. These cases are on the rise, be it in the rural areas or urban. One such disease is the Polycystic Ovary Disorder (PCOD or PCOS),” says Dr Shimpi.
The PCOD/PCOS is a hormonal disorder which affects girls as young as 11 years of age and is one of the leading causes of infertility. It is primarily caused by incorrect lifestyle. PCOD/PCOS can cause problems in a woman’s menstrual cycle and sometimes even in her appearance.
“It usually occurs when the female sex hormones go out of balance and the body starts producing more male hormones resulting in the onset of several symptoms. Excessive facial hair growth, acne, severe menstrual pain, cramps and irregular periods are a few symptoms of the disorder,” adds Shimpi.
Women, who suffer from this disorder, have multiple small cysts in their ovaries that occur when the normal menstrual cycle is disrupted. “The polycystic ovaries are generally larger in size and denser than the normal ovaries. Hence they are more painful. However, the pain can vary from person to person,” she says.
PCOS can be tackled with intake of hormone pills to regularise periods, painkillers and even surgically removing the ovaries. “However with the advancement in medicine, surgeries are now being avoided and the patients who are younger, are advised a lifestyle change,” adds Shimpi.
Painful reproductive disorder
Endometriosis is the menstrual blood that goes backward usually into the main abdominal cavity because of which the bladder, bowel and pelvic nerves are affected. “Endometriosis is a period disease which throughout the world goes undiagnosed,” says Dr Seckin.
The symptoms, he informs, usually start appearing around the first period but then they are often ignored by the women in the family. “Girls often tell their mothers that they’re in pain but the mother many a times regards this pain as normal. Women actually convince themselves by saying that period pain is normal which should not be the case,” he says.
The painful reproductive disorder affects nearly 178 million women worldwide but very little is being done for its cure. Women, who choose to treat it in a non-surgical way, are usually given painkillers, birth-control pills and sometimes even antidepressants. “Those who opt for a surgical procedure often undergo laproscopy to remove the inflamed tissue,” he says.
Treating Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is probably the only cancer whose cause is known, says Dr Potdar. The cancer occurs in the cervix, as a result of abnormal growth of cells, that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body.
As per reports, it is also the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women in India. Potdar points out that the most common cause of cervical cancer is the HVP virus.
“Initially, cervical cancer may not have any symptoms. Later pelvic pain or bleeding may occur. It takes several years for normal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer cells,” she says, adding, “It is extremely important that young girls are educated and made aware of it. If detected at a a younger age, it is easy to control and cure.”
Women, who are sexually active, should get a PAP smear test done every single year until they turn 60. “PAP smear is not a painful test. But an important one. Even if you have not been diagnosed with cervical cancer, consider getting the test done anyway,” Potdar says.
The doctor mentions that there are vaccines, safe and highly recommended and can protect women against several types of HPV including some that cause cancer. “The treatment depends on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. It also depends on whether the woman would like to become pregnant someday,” she adds.
Rebooting our system
One reason for an increase in reproductive health problems is the sedentary lifestyle that women lead today. Says Payal Kothari, an integrative nutritionist, life coach and NLP expert, “Women these days are leading a fast paced life, influenced by technology. The sad part is that they are not even aware that altering their sleeping and eating habits might be harmful for their body.”
“Eating late, eating out of boxes, or indulging in fast food, results in weight gain that affects reproductive health and results in other complications,” she adds.
Kothari believes that women must speak up on hygiene, sexual and reproductive health and support each other. “These topics are always hushed and shushed about in not only schools but also in families which leads to poor awareness regarding the topic. Women should talk about things that matter to them in life and their reproductive health is just one of them,” says she.
What needs to be done?
Kothari lists a few tips on reversing the bad effects on our reproductive health
Consume more and more of green and dark green vegetables and fruits like kale, spinach, green peas, avocado. The vitamins and nutrients present in these foods are extremely good in providing the nourishment that is required by reproductive organs.
Eat fresh, healthy, organic and natural food. Since natural food is free of any processed foods and sugar, this will boost the health of the reproductive system.
Cook your food in olive oil, coconut oil and ghee.
Munch on nuts.
Avoid sugary drinks, refined sugar products such as waffles, pancakes and cupcakes as well as fast food.
Exercise without fail. Indulge in some kind of physical activity daily and while working out, keep your mind off your phone and stay focused.