Through my experiences as a physician and a woman, there are some women’s health topics that I think are important to talk about.
Heart disease is a chronic disease that affects both men and women as they get older, but it can affect them differently. For example, a classic part of heart disease is a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when blood vessels to the heart are blocked by deposits of hardened fat that form over time – these are called ‘plaques’. Sometimes blood clots can form over these plaques and blocks the heart’s blood vessels so it cannot get the oxygen and nutrients that it needs. This causes damage to the heart’s muscle.
When a heart attack does occur in women the signs and symptoms can vary from how men typically experience a heart attack – crushing chest pain that travels down their left arm. In women, the pain may occur in their chest or somewhere else in the body like the arms, back, neck or jaw. The pain may come on slowly or all at once. Some women have experienced stomach pain and thought they were having heartburn, or they vomited, or felt short of breath. It is important to be aware of these signs and symptoms. If you experience these and it’s not normal, you should seek medical attention.
What kinds of things should women do to reduce your risk of having a heart attack? Make sure you have healthy blood iron levels. Anemia, low iron levels in the blood, is common in women from monthly periods or pregnancy. Iron is important because it helps to delivery oxygen to the heart. You can incorporate iron-rich foods into your diet (e.g. spinach, tomato sauce, beans, green peas and roasted pumpkin or squash seeds) or you may require an iron supplement.
Women and men can also try to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Salt can increase your blood pressure. Decrease your salt intake by eating fresh foods and not adding extra salt to your food. If you continue to eat a healthy and balanced diet (low in fat and sugars) and exercise regularly you are less likely to develop plaques in your blood vessels from high levels of bad cholesterol in your blood.
Cancer screening is very important for all women to participate in. Cancer screening isn’t something to be feared. It doesn’t mean that you have cancer, but it can help to find cancer earlier when it is easier to treat.
There are three types of cancer screening that all women should be aware of: breast, cervical, and colorectal. In Ontario, it is recommended that all women ages 50 years and older have a breast screening mammogram and complete a Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit to screen for colorectal cancer (if they have no family history) every two years.
A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of the breast. A FOBT kit is a take-home kit where you collect samples of your stool to send to a lab where they will look for small traces of blood in your samples.
Cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women, ages 21 years and older, who have ever been sexually active. A Pap test, performed by a doctor or a trained nurse, screens for cervical cancer by taking a sample of cells from your cervix to send to a lab for testing.
This test can be awkward, but it doesn’t take long to complete. This test is very important because most cervical cancers develop in women who have never been screened or who don’t go for routine screening. Cervical cancer is preventable with routine Pap test screening.
Sometimes I think that women put everyone else’s health and problems before their own, but it is important to remember that we need to be well in order to help others. Overall, it is important for women to discuss their health with their healthcare provider.
They can help to check for signs of heart disease and also help you to get screened for cancer. You can also call the Screen for Life Office at 1-800-461-7031 to ask about cancer screening services. Remember, your health is in your hands.
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