Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Hear me rawr

If you know me at all, you know that I am not an overt feminist. Some might assume that I am not a feminist at all.

Well, you'd be wrong.

While not a supporter of many of the agendas of the feminist movement, I do believe that women are meant to enjoy the same opportunities that men do -- when that is logical. Women are equally deserving of good jobs, quality educations, and sound medical care, just like their male counterparts. But this may not mean we are entitled to always enjoy the same opportunities because, in case you hadn't noticed?

We are wildly different creatures. And for that I say Amen. Different is amazing, and interesting, and beautiful, and quite literally life-giving.

This isn't really a post about equal rights. This is about about equal access to something vital to the well-being of women everywhere: sound medical care.

Probably because of our historically male-driven paradigm (men work/men provide/men lead/men protect/etc), a lot of medical research is conducted with men in mind. Or, maybe more accurately, with men as the primary source from which data is collected. Heart disease, for example, manifests itself quite differently in a woman than it does in a man -- but in the past most public education campaigns were designed around the classic symptoms found in men, as most research had typically been done on the male population. I don't believe this was deliberate, just an unfortunate outcome of an outdated mindset.

The good news? The medical community seems to be catching on to this. Women's health is being discussed in many outlets and researchers are casting a wider net, looking for clues to the genesis - and cures - for disease in both men and women.

But I'm here to tell you, we still have a long way to go. I know this because I'm experiencing the imbalance myself.

I'm not sure when I first heard about PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. I know the first time I ever heard a doctor mention it to me was more or less in passing, as she went over the results of a rather lengthy history I had provided. Buried between the meatier topics of obesity and diabetes risks was a quick castoff, a mention that I had all the classic signs of PCOS -- fun stuff, like being overweight, having irregular periods, oily skin, unwanted facial hair -- and so I probably had that as well. That was it.

A few months later I had a miscarriage.

Soon after that, in a discussion about insulin resistance, I was put on Metformin. It was explained to me that this would help my body overcome the insulin resistance, thereby helping me achieve better weight loss results. The side effects could be unpleasant (and yes, they can be) but we should give it a go. And so we did.

Never one to shy away from the internet for more information, I started doing some searches on this new medication I was taking. It didn't take long before I saw that it was frequently prescribed for women with PCOS -- and hadn't I been told I probably had that, too? With a little more digging I found that Metformin was known to help women with PCOS get pregnant. Get pregnant, and stay pregnant.

That's when I knew that there was no "probably" about it. I really had this thing, this PCOS. And I had likely lost a baby because of it. And nobody told me it might happen.

Happily, I got pregnant again -- thanks to that Metformin, I have no doubt -- and had a beautiful, healthy baby girl. Perhaps I've mentioned her before?

So life went on. I lost more weight. Then I lost my mother, and my father, and most of my resolve, and the weight soon returned. I continued to see my doctors, an ob-gyn and a new internist, and I always brought up PCOS. Not really knowing what to ask, I would tell them that another doctor told me I probably had it. And in lock-step, each doctor would shrug, say yes you probably do, and there's little you can do about it. Eat right. Exercise. Lose weight. Next question.

And I know that their answers were correct. Correct, but not complete.

I'm learning that PCOS, obviously unique to women, is a parallel to something the medical community calls Syndrome X, a high-insulin metabolic state. While my primary concern with PCOS arose from infertility, some recent reading has also taught me that PCOS, like Syndrome X, can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems. Additionally, because PCOS effects the hormonal function of the ovaries, women with chronic and/or severe cases are also at risk for ruptured cysts, ovarian twisting, internal bleeding, endometriosis, endometrial hyperplasia, and endometrial cancer.

An increased risk for cancer. There's absolutely nothing that terrifies me more.

I think that's worth more than a shrug and a passing comment, don't you? Three doctors -- three female doctors -- never told me any of this. Maybe they didn't know. But they should, and now I do.

Look, I'm not going to lie: Losing weight and getting pregnant were big motivators for learning more about this thing, and they are still big motivators for trying to overcome it. But the more I learn the more I realize that there is more at stake here than dropping a few dress sizes and having another baby. There is my life, and growing old with Rob and raising Sara.

Why didn't they tell me? I don't suppose it matters now. What matters is that I don't let them off the hook so easily in the future. I know better what to ask, and who to seek if they can't provide the answers.

Because I'm a woman. And I deserve that kind of healthcare.



Amy H said...

It amazes me more and more how the role of gender is still something that clouds good judgement. And I think you are right, it's not intentional, just the way we have viewed things for so long.

When my aunt had her heart attack I had no idea that the symptoms she had been experiencing all day were classic heart attack symptoms, for women. At least now I know. And I am glad that you do too. Because I plan to spend many days laughing with you about motherhood, marriage, theology, and even the state of health care for women.

Love you, girl.

elaine brenner said...

Hmmm. Interesting. What would our mothers have done with the internet? I assume they'd have been healthier...or at the very least better equipped. God knows my mother had to rely on my dad for her medical information and care, and we all know how THAT turned out.

Here's to long lives together.