Women's Health Patient Journey
There are a number of groups of health concerns that affect women either only or disproportionately. It is important for women to be aware of these concerns, to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to diminish the risk of contracting related conditions, to be aware of their own bodies in a way that allows them to notice when something is out of the ordinary, and to visit a doctor whenever they exhibit symptoms that may indicate a serious health condition.
Breast cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, vulval cancer, and ovarian cancer are all of particular concern for many women; it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of these conditions, and to regularly self-examine for lumps – particularly in the case of breast cancer. It’s essential for every woman to know what is normal for her with regard to her breasts and menstrual cycle so that anything out of the ordinary can be detected. If you find a lump or notice a change in menstruation (including abnormally heavy bleeding, bleeding between periods, irregular vaginal bleeding or any bleeding after the menopause), you should see a doctor. Other symptoms that should not be ignored include pelvic pain and pain during intercourse. Most lumps are not cancerous but all need evaluation; similarly, changes in menstruation and the other symptoms mentioned often have benign explanations, but should always be looked at by a doctor.
Other more specific concerns affecting the vagina include period pains, thrush, cystitis, vaginal dryness, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia, and fibroids (benign tumours that form most often on the walls of the womb). There are, of course, a number of other health concerns affecting women which are not related to the breasts or vagina, from headaches and migraines, scars on the body, arthritis, skin conditions (including acne, particularly among those going through the menopause), insomnia, and incontinence, to foot health and varicose veins.
Conditions whose symptoms and risk factors women should pay special attention to include heart disease and stroke. In connection with conditions like these, it is particularly important to maintain a healthy lifestyle – including avoiding smoking, taking regular exercise, drinking in moderation, and maintaining healthy weight and cholesterol levels, and normal blood pressure.
Many women's health issues vary substantially with age from menarche (a woman’s first menstrual cycle) to post-menopause. These include the cancers, menstrual concerns, and other conditions mentioned above, as well as fertility and pregnancy, and the menopause. There is a lot you can do to ease menopausal symptoms (including hot flushes and night sweats, mood changes, and hair thinning), from taking special care with your clothing and bedding to hormone replacement therapy (HRT; this option is not available to all women though, so you should consult your doctor).
Upon visiting your GP (or perhaps gynaecologist), you will usually be asked about the nature, onset and duration of your symptoms; any relieving or aggravating factors; whether there is any relevant family history; and whether you are taking any medications. For breast problems, the doctor will usually perform a visual and manual examination of both breasts and axillae (armpits). For uterine or ovarian problems an abdominal and bi-manual pelvic examination (in which the doctor, wearing a glove, inserts two fingers into the vagina and presses with the other hand on the abdomen to feel the uterus and ovaries) is usually performed. A speculum may also be inserted to enable the doctor to look for any abnormalities and to perform a cervical smear. There are special screening programs for cervical and breast cancer in pregnant women.
The doctor may request blood tests and imaging such as ultrasound (in which inaudible high-frequency sound waves pass through the body to provide an image) or specific X-rays such as mammograms (X-rays of the breasts). You may also be referred to a specialist for further evaluation and more specific tests such as CT scans (computerized composites of X-rays which form detailed pictures) and biopsies (microscopic examination of tissue taken from the body).
Depending on the diagnosis the doctor or specialist will discuss treatment options which may be take the form of lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, or other specific more therapies.
talkhealth recommends a number of support groups, charities, and other organizations that deal especially with health concerns particularly associated with women. Women’s Health Concern covers many women’s health issues. Infertility Network UK and Foresight deal with fertility. For menopause concerns, we recommend the British Menopause Society and for endometriosis we recommend Endometriosis UK. For charities and support groups associated with all sorts of other medical conditions, see our full list of charity partners.
You can read our women's health blog for all the latest news, opinions, and stories from the talkhealth community, and find additional support in our talkwomen's health forum - see also our forum index for forums pertaining to other specific conditions wich which women suffer.