Health and wellness are two words on everyone’s lips right now, but what about women’s health? Dr Ciara Kelly takes a look at how we can improve your health
There’s been a huge focus lately on improving our diet and physical activity levels. While absolutely everyone can benefit from optimising those two health behaviours, it’s important to not forget the other facets of our health. From stress management, to sleep hygiene, to showing up for our appointments in our national cancer screening programmes health is not a one-size fits all. There are differences between adults and children and men and women in terms of what comprises a healthy lifestyle. For us ladies especially, there are some key aspects of our health that we should make as much of a priority as food and fitness.
Healthcare ‘Down There’
Are you savvy about your sexual health? It’s unfortunately quite a neglected part of our overall health, partly due to stigma around and poor awareness of the topic. Examples of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) include H.I.V., genital herpes, genital warts, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
In Ireland we are seeing a major rise in certain STIs – particularly chlamydia and gonorrhea. Both of which are often initially clinically silent (i.e. symptoms or signs may be unnoticed) but can spread and cause a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease and increase the risk of infertility. Most STIs are passed between sexual partners through unprotected oral, anal or vaginal sex. It is really important to prioritise good sexual health.
Strategies to do so include knowing your own sexual health history and being open with your partner, having an STI test before intercourse with every new partner and using a condom every time you have sexual intercourse. It’s also important to avoid intercourse until tested (and if needed, treated) if you or your partner show any signs of infection, cuts or sores on the genital area, or are diagnosed with an STI. Check out sexualwellbeing.ie for more information on optimising your sexual health.
Knowing your cycle
How well do you know your menstrual cycle? Menstruation itself (when blood leaves the womb through the vagina) happens approximately every 28 days (although this can be a range between 24 and 35). The menstrual cycle occurs as a result of hormonal cycles and communication between your brain and your ovaries. Which is a simplified explanation! The menstrual cycle is a natural part of being female and is an important vital sign of our reproductive health.
If your cycles have gone awry (or absent entirely), you need to get it checked out. If you have noticed irregularities in your menstrual cycle, whether in the frequency or nature of it, or the absence/loss of your cycle (known as ‘amenorrhoea’), make it your mission to check in with your GP to discuss it. The FitrWoman app is a fantastic resource to use to monitor your menstrual cycle. It shares great insights into how your period can affect your exercise, and has recipes too.
Show up for screening
Have you had your cervix and/or breasts checked? Showing up for our appointments in Ireland’s national cancer screening programmes is one of the most important ways to prioritise prevention over cure. In Ireland every women between the age of 25 and 60 are called for a cervical smear test. It happens very three years for those ages 25 to 44, and every five years for those aged 45 to 60.
A smear test is the test we use for our cervical cancer screening programme. It’s not a test to detect cancer – it aims to detect pre-cancerous changes in a woman’s cervix (the neck of the womb). Cervical cancer can take 10-15 years to develop, making it a very preventable disease, which is one of the main reasons we screen for it.
If you’re afraid or nervous to go for your smear – please don’t be. It’s a very quickly performed test, taking less than 5 minutes. The doctor or nurse performing the smear test will use an instrument called a speculum to open the vagina. This allows them to see the cervix. A small specialised brush is used to get a small sample of cells from the cervix. It can feel a bit odd and some find it uncomfortable, but not painful. The more you relax, the less likely that is.
Your results will be sent to a laboratory for testing, and then sent back to your GP/clinic within a few weeks. If abnormal changes are seen, you’ll be called to your GP/clinic to discuss this. At this stage you may be referred on for another test called a colposcopy to have a closer look at the cervix. For those based in Ireland, check out the Irish Health Service Executive website for more information.
In Ireland, we also have our Breast Check breast cancer screening programme which is currently being extended. By 2021 it will invite all women aged 50-69 for a free mammogram every 2 years. Originally it was those aged 50 to 64. A mammogram is essentially an x-ray of the breast.
As with cervical cancer, we screen for breast cancer. This is because research has shown that when we detect the disease earlier, when it is asymptomatic, the better. It’s so important for us ladies be ‘breast aware’. We need to get into the habit of looking at and feeling our breasts from time to time. This is so that we know what’s our ‘normal’, and therefore might notice when something is ‘abnormal’. Including breast size, shape, nipple changes, skin changes, lumps/thickening or pain in the breast. As well as swellings in the armpit. Have a peek at the Irish Cancer Society website for more information on being breast aware.