Why women need to advocate for their own health

November 16, 2023

If you’re not feeling ill, would you go to the doctor? If you answered no, you’re definitely not alone. Our current medical system tends to be reactive, with people only seeking help after symptoms appear. It is currently not set up to prioritize proactive health. This can become problematic as many of today’s diseases, especially cancers, don’t show symptoms until they have progressed. By the time it is detected in its later stages, treatment options become limited and survival rates plummet.

While there are a range of recommended screening tests available, a University of Chicago study found that only 14% of cancers were detected through these tests, with the majority identified through symptoms or medical intervention unrelated to cancer screening. The rest were either not caught by screening tests or don’t have one. Evidently, there needs to be more screening options widely available, as well as a shift in mindset on how we approach healthcare to become more proactive.

This can be especially challenging when it comes to women’s health since many symptoms often overlap with non-life-threatening conditions. Not only does this make women unaware of potential underlying disease, it could also lead to pain being ignored and misdiagnosed. Therefore, women need to become advocates for their health, otherwise things will slip through the cracks.

What are the standardized cancer screening tests?

The American Cancer Society screening guidelines recommend getting regular screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer for women as scientific evidence has shown that these tests may help save lives.

Breast Cancer Screening

Women from 40 years of age can start getting regular breast cancer screening with mammograms. However, women with dense breasts may require additional screening with ultrasound or MRI. This is because dense tissue can hide cancers, making it difficult for mammograms to distinguish between a tumor and dense breast tissue.

Cervical Cancer Screening

There are two main screening tests for cervical cancer: pap tests and human papillomavirus (HPV) tests. Cervical cancer screening can start when women are 21 years old, with regular pap tests every 3 years. For women over 65, cervical cancer screening can stop if they have been screened regularly and have had normal results.

Colorectal Cancer Screening

For women with average risk of colorectal cancer, screening can start at age 45 with either a stool-based test or a visual exam that looks at the colon and rectum. Since polyps and colorectal cancers can bleed, stool-based tests can check for tiny amounts of blood in feces. Women can also undergo visual exams such as colonoscopy every 10 years or sigmoidoscopy every 5 years.

Lung Cancer Screening

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPST) recommends lung cancer screening with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) in adults aged 50-80 years who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smokes or have quit within the past 15 years. However, it does come with risks of false-positives, overdiagnosis and radiation from repeated LDCT which can cause cancer in otherwise healthy people. This is why lung cancer screening is only recommended for those who are at high risk for developing lung cancer.

Why do some cancers have screening tests but others don’t?

The fact that only a handful of cancers have standardized screening tests means that about 57% of all diagnosed cancers currently do not have a standardized screening test, according to researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago. The research team reports that these diseases are typically found in symptomatic patients with later-stage cancers that are more difficult to treat. In total, these diagnoses account for 70% of cancer-related deaths.

The reality is that no screening test is perfect ‒ they all come with benefits and risks. In order for a screening test to become routine and standardized, the benefits must outweigh the risks. Particularly with cancer, the test must show that it contributes to decreasing the rate of death caused by the cancer.

While there are many cancers that still don’t have routine screening, this does not mean that we should not get screened for those conditions. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among American women, yet there is no screening test widely available. It is known as the silent killer because ovarian cancer does not show symptoms until its later stages. However, when detected early, the five-year survival rate is over 90% compared to 10% caught at late stages.

Screening also goes beyond just cancers. There are many conditions that if caught early, can be potentially life-saving, such as brain aneurysms. They’re like a ticking time bomb that lives within the blood vessels, waiting to rupture at any moment in time. An estimated 6.7 million people in the US have an unruptured brain aneurysm, with women over the age of 55, having a higher risk of brain aneurysm rupture than men. Aneurysms are usually asymptomatic ‒ you might not know you have one until it bursts, which is often fatal. If you had the ability to catch early signs of a brain aneurysm, wouldn’t you want to?

Ultimately, the decision to get routine screening lies within the balance between its benefits and risks. No screening test is perfect, but if the benefits outweigh the risks, then it should be done because early detection can potentially mean a life saved.

Why women need to advocate for their own health

Taking a proactive approach to health is beneficial to everyone ‒ we all want to catch conditions before they become crises. However, it is particularly important for women to not only be proactive but also advocate for their own health.

In this day and age, gender disparity is apparent within our health care ‒ women’s health is still not taken seriously. Many, if not most, women have experienced having their pain dismissed or attributed to psychological causes. Research shows that women in chronic pain are more likely to be considered “hysterical” and accused of “fabricating the pain” while men tend to be regarded as “stoic”.

These consequences can be detrimental to the type of treatment women receive for a range of issues such as heart problems, chronic illness and overall physical pain. A study published in Academic Emergency Medicine found that women who went to the emergency room with severe stomach pain had to wait for almost 33% longer than men with the same symptoms.

While health issues don’t discriminate, unfortunately health care does. This is why it is crucial that women should always advocate for their health and well-being.

Empowering women’s health with Prenuvo

For women, Prenuvo can be more than just a tool for early disease detection. It’s a way to take matters into their own hands, to advocate for their own health in a medical system that is reactive and slow to diagnose disease.

The future of women’s health care is in collaboration. Dr. Narula from the Katz Institute for Women’s Health argues that it is “old-fashioned” to think of each organ system separately. When considering a patient’s cardiovascular health, for example, physicians need to understand everything else that is going on in their patient’s life. Are they overweight or obese? Do they have an autoimmune disease? Do they have any stress from their personal life or at work? All of these factors can affect a patient’s risk for heart disease.

In the same way, Prenuvo provides a comprehensive overview of what’s going on inside your whole body, so you can see how your lifestyle may be affecting your underlying health. With diagnostic-quality images, Prenuvo’s whole-body MRI scan is able to detect many stage 1 tumors and over 500 other conditions. From ovarian cancer to brain aneurysms, get the peace of mind that if something is off, you’ll more likely catch it early.

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