Women's Health Patient Journey
There are a number of health concerns which affect women and therefore need separate consideration. Having the knowledge about health conditions which affect women and being aware of these concerns is important and will help with living a good quality of life, especially into later years. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle in order to lower the risk of contracting certain conditions, being aware of your own body and visiting a doctor whenever you notice something which doesn’t feel normal for you is extremely important. Often these symptoms will be the result of natural changes which occur as the body ages. However in rare cases some symptoms may be an indicator of a more serious condition which your doctor will be able to help you with.
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 the breasts for lumps, be aware of changes in menstrual cycle and vaginal bleeding post menopause. 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 advice from your doctor will help rule out any potential serious issues; similarly, changes in menstruation and the other symptoms mentioned often have non-threatening explanations, but should always be discussed with your doctor.
Other more specific concerns affecting the vagina include period pains, thrush, cystitis, vaginal dryness, fibroids (benign tumours that form most often on the walls of the womb) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia. 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.
Aside from conditions which affect only the female anatomy; heart disease and strokes are also a common health issue for women. Currently women are more than 3 times likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer so being aware of issues connected with these conditions is vital, especially in the years following menopause.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle – including stopping smoking, taking regular exercise, drinking in moderation, maintaining healthy weight and cholesterol levels , and normal blood pressure, will help to keep your heart healthy.
Many women's health issues vary substantially from person to person and with age. These include the cancers, menstrual concerns, and other conditions mentioned above, as well as fertility and pregnancy, and the menopause.
What to expect when you visit your doctor.
Upon visiting your GP you will usually be asked about the nature of your symptoms; for example when your symptoms started and how long you have been experiencing them. Your doctor will also want to know if there is anything which makes your symptoms feel better or worse, whether there is any relevant family history; and whether you are taking any medication. It may be helpful to keep a diary of symptoms to help your doctor make a diagnosis and to ensure you do not feel overwhelmed, or forget something when talking about it. For breast problems, the doctor may perform a visual and manual examination of both breasts and 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) may be performed. A speculum (a device which holds the walls of the vagina open so that the cervix can be seen) 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 a transvaginal (TUV) or external 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 take the form of lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, or other specific therapies.
talkhealthsuggests a number of support groups, charities, and other organisations that deal specifically with health concerns associated with women. Women’s Health Concern covers many women’s health issues. Infertility Network UK and Foresight deal with fertility. For menopause concerns, talkhealth suggests the British Menopause Society and for endometriosis suggest 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 talkhealthcommunity, and find additional support in our talkwomen's health forum - see also our forum index for forums related to other specific conditions which affect women.
Sources used in writing this article are available on request.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 20 October 2016