Why Women Should Know Their Risk Factors and Start Learning to Put Their Own Health First

Appeared in:
Smart Business LA County

As primary caregivers for their children, spouses and parents, women too often neglect their own health care needs while tending to the priorities of others. But research shows that when women take care of themselves, the health of their families improves.

Smart Business spoke to Susan Melvin, director of family medicine at Long Beach Medical Center, and Angela Sie, M.D., imaging director at MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Medical Center, to learn more.

Do certain diseases affect men and women differently?

While heart disease is the leading cause of death for males and females, underdiagnosis and subtle, often silent, symptoms result in more women than men dying from the disease.

For women, symptoms include nausea or dizziness; uncomfortable pressure or tightness; squeezing, fullness or heaviness in the chest that does not go away in a few minutes; cold sweats or pounding heart; pain radiating up the shoulders and neck or down the arms or back; difficulty breathing; and/or shortness of breath. Men say they feel crushing chest pain, like an elephant sitting on their chest. Activities as simple as lunchtime walking routines, desk exercises and replacing unhealthy snacks and sweets with vegetables and fruit can help reduce the risk.

What is the most common cancer?

Lung cancer, rare until the 1930s when smoking increased dramatically, is the most prevalent, surpassing breast cancer as the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. About 90 percent of lung cancers result from tobacco use, which contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, many shown to be cancer-causing. Nonsmokers residing with a smoker have a 24 percent higher risk for developing lung cancer than nonsmokers who don’t live with a smoker. In many developing countries, incidence is decreasing, thanks to early education about the dangers of smoking and effective smoking cessation programs.

Has there been progress in breast cancer?

Thanks to vastly improved technology, education and awareness, breast cancers are detected at smaller sizes and earlier stages than in the past. Earlier detection and better treatment options have caused breast cancer survival rates to improve 2 percent annually over the last decade. It’s important to get annual screening mammograms after age 40, or earlier if you have certain risk factors. To detect breast cancer early, also have regular breast exams by your doctor and perform self-exams every month. MemorialCare Breast Centers are recognized nationally for advances in diagnosis and treatment and access to the latest technologies and techniques.

What about female cancers?

Women are at risk for gynecological cancers that attack the tissues and organs of the reproductive system, and include cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers. While the symptoms vary by the type of cancer, they may include pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, persistent abdominal swelling or bloating, ongoing bowel changes, like constipation and diarrhea, and unintended weight loss or gain.

Risks can be reduced by getting regular pap smears, avoiding smoking and limiting exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus that in some cases, when it is left undetected or untreated, may progress into cervical cancer.

Are there other diseases primarily affecting women?

Among diseases affecting women, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and endometriosis are important to mention. Of the 44 million Americans with highly preventable osteoporosis, 69 percent are women. To combat and lessen affects of osteoporosis, keep your bones strong with weight-bearing physical activities, avoid fractures, maintain active lifestyles, ensure adequate consumption of calcium and vitamin D and discuss possible risks and prevention with your doctor.

Urinary track infections, or UTIs, are more common in women, with one in five developing UTIs during their lifetime. UTIs occurring during pregnancy can lead to premature delivery. Endometriosis, a reproductive condition that affects nearly 100 million women around the world, causes pelvic pain, heavy periods and irregularity with the menstrual cycle. Without treatment, the symptoms worsen and it can cause infertility.

How can employers help women stay well?

Partner with hospitals to offer education, prevention, screening tests and wellness activities for your employees and their families. MemorialCare Health System, for example, provides specialized diagnostic and treatment programs for women. There are also online risk assessments, tools and information at memorialcare.org. Remind your employees that taking care of themselves and their families is essential to living longer, healthier and happier lives.

When individuals partner with doctors and hospitals by learning their family medical history, educating themselves about medical issues, paying attention to changes in their bodies and taking even the simplest of steps tov improve their health, the results can be significant and everyone benefits.

Susan Melvin, D.O., is director of family medicine at Long Beach Medical Center. Angela Sie, M.D., is imaging director at MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Medical Center.