OPINION: May’s National Women’s Health Month observance ideal time to prioritize wellness


May is National Women’s Health Month, providing a significant opportunity to further highlight the importance of women being mindful of their health from a holistic approach that focuses on mind, body and spirit. As a practicing physician and woman, I would encourage women to invest in their health to dispel doubts about abnormal symptoms or emotions they are experiencing, and to advocate for themselves to receive the quality patient care that every woman deserves. 

Care for what’s upstairs

National Women’s Health Month coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is an extremely vital part of women’s overall health and well-being. During this month — and every day — prioritize mental health as it can impact physical health if left unchecked. High levels of stress can affect organs such as the heart and lungs, as well as increase blood pressure and raise cortisol levels within the body. My dad would always say to me, “Take care of what’s upstairs,” reminding me to take mental pauses from work and or any other stressors that could impact my mental health throughout the day.  

If you need to talk with someone, seek out support from a trusted mental health care professional, even when things are going well. Investing in mental health before a crisis or before something bad happens can give you the tools to help navigate challenges when they do arise. It also provides an opportunity to see someone on a regular basis to help you with smaller challenges and navigate through everyday life.

Protect your heart

The heart is a powerful, complex organ that is crucial to the overall functioning of the body. It enables us to carry out everyday tasks and experience the joys of life. Maintaining a healthy heart is paramount, especially for women, to decrease the risk of developing heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, men and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. To safeguard heart health, it’s advisable to have an annual exam with a health care provider. This allows for listening to the heart, gaining insight into personal and family health history and assessing risk factors for a heart attack.

When heart disease develops, it obstructs the proper flow of blood to the heart, impeding its normal pumping function. High cholesterol, stress and high blood pressure have been linked to heart disease. While some warning signs such as chest, neck or shoulder pain may be present, not everyone experiences symptoms. Conditions such as hypertension and elevated cholesterol, often termed “silent killers,” may not show symptoms. To mitigate the risk of heart disease, lifestyle changes such as a balanced diet rich in fruits, leafy vegetables, clean proteins, fibers, and whole grains, coupled with regular exercise and annual checkups, are recommended.

Take care of reproductive health

It is crucial for women to prioritize their reproductive health. Symptoms such as extreme pain, heavy bleeding or abnormalities during menstrual cycles, perimenopause or menopause should not be normalized or dismissed as something that women just have to “deal with.” These symptoms might indicate underlying health issues, such as cervical cancer, which is a disease that occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. According to the CDC cervical cancer affects thousands of women every year, highlighting the necessity of regular health checkups, reproductive screenings and pap smears. 

Further, breast cancer is increasingly diagnosed across all ages, emphasizing the importance of mammograms for women. Consult with your health care provider regarding your health history, any symptoms you’re experiencing and the recommended frequency for breast examinations. These proactive measures can significantly impact early detection and treatment outcomes. 

Check in on your colon 

Colon care is typically associated with getting older, yet there’s been a concerning rise in the diagnosis of advanced stage colorectal cancer among individuals younger than 50. A recent high-profile example is the beloved Hollywood actor Chadwick Boseman, who died in August 2020 after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. Unfortunately, the most common signs of colon cancer can be overlooked. Symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating and changes in bowel habits — ranging from diarrhea to constipation — are common, but also can be attributed to various other health issues. 

But there is some good news; colon cancer is preventable if detected early. Symptoms may not always be present, making regular screenings imperative. I strongly encourage women to take the first step and get screened. Early detection could make all the difference.

Advocate for yourself

For women, and all individuals, it’s vital to trust yourself and advocate for your overall health and well-being. If something feels amiss, keep a journal of the symptoms and share with your health care provider. 

Advocating for yourself also means taking a proactive approach to your health care, scheduling all your recommended yearly health exams and preventive care screenings — from eye exams and mammograms, to annual exams and pap smears. Don’t wait. At each appointment, share with your provider any changes in your health or any new symptoms you’ve noticed. 

Speak up for yourself, and ensure that your provider is truly hearing you, providing them with grace, while prioritizing your health and assertively working to develop an action plan for your comprehensive health and wellness journey. 

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell is a board-certified, family medicine physician practicing urgent care medicine. She is based in Reno, where she serves as the medical director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group as well as the medical director for the Washoe County Sexual Assault Response Team and is founder of Beyond Clinical Walls. Additionally, Curry-Winchell is a regular national medical correspondent and TEDx speaker.

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