Gynaecological health is rarely discussed. Many women silently suffer from disorders such as cancer, endometriosis and PCOS and more can be done to prevent and manage them.
Cervical cancer is the 10th most common cancer among Singaporean women. 1 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis. 10% of women of reproductive age are affected by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
But how much do you know about these gynaecological health issues?
If your answer is “not much”, don’t feel bad. Awareness about these serious and often debilitating illnesses is inadequate, even among medical professionals.
Katharina Reimer, Executive Director of the Karen Leung Foundation, emphasised how improved education and proactive prevention strategies for cervical cancer can help save lives. The Foundation was set up as a legacy to Karen Leung, a 35-year-old trader in Hong Kong who was diagnosed with the disease at an advanced stage, and died less than a year later. The charity raises awareness about gynaecological cancers by educating the Hong Kong community about prevention and early detection.
“I think Karen had this fate because too little was talked about cervical cancer specifically… Would she have known more about symptoms of cervical cancer or to prevent cervical cancer ie. through a HPV [Human Papilloma Virus] vaccine, she would have maybe survived,” Katharina explained.
HPV is a common sexually-transmitted virus that that is responsible for more than 99% of cervical cancer cases. The Karen Leung Foundation has advocated for mandating a national HPV vaccination programme, which, along with screening tests, effectively prevents cervical cancer.
Stigmas around gynaecological health
One of the barriers to effective education about gynaecological health and wellness is the stigma and conservative attitudes towards talking about female anatomy.
This is something gynaecologist Dr Zara Chan has observed. She believes that gynaecological check ups should be normalised as part of a routine health check, but there are cultural stigmas that make women feel fear or shame about it.
“Some cultures just don’t like to talk about it. You might talk about a lump or bump that developed on your arm over dinner, and you might feel free to ask someone about it and say, ‘Which doctor can I see?’, or ‘I’ve got acne, which doctor should I see?’. But ‘I’ve got vaginal dryness, who should I see?’ — you never really ask people that. So most people would go on Google and just do what Google says, which then leads to other problems,” she said.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner Dr Ruth Lee of Balance Health uses cues such as the length of the patient’s menstrual cycle, the heaviness of their menstrual flow and the colour of their blood in place of medical diagnostics such as blood tests to identify the patient’s health issues and underlying imbalances in their body.
“The TCM way of seeing a condition or illness is very different from the Western approach. But it is complementary. It is also very beneficial if the patient can provide us all the examinations reports like blood tests and ultrasounds. Those are very important information to help us understand their body type,” she clarified.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a complex hormonal condition. Dr Chan stressed the difference between having polycystic ovaries and PCOS — the former is a condition where a patient has multiple cysts growing on her ovaries, while the latter is a series of different symptoms, including polycystic ovaries. The cause of PCOS is currently unknown, and tends to affect younger women.
“It’s linked to many different things, outside of just the ovaries. People who have this syndrome typically have irregular periods and so there is some fertility issues down the line. It’s also related to some metabolic issues… things like high cholesterol levels, diabetes, cardiovascular risk. And also down the line there’s some association with mental health as well… It’s a very complicated diagnosis,” described Dr Chan.
Riva Hiranand endured years of excruciating period pain before being diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 18 — a disorder she had never heard of. The debilitating pain is caused by the growth of tissues similar to the uterine lining in areas outside the uterus, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes or even the intestines. The doctors Riva consulted before her diagnosis had chalked up her symptoms to dysmenorrhea — regular menstrual cramps.
“There’s really nothing more disheartening than when a doctor dismisses your symptoms. Also, we just need to stop normalising period pain. When you have extreme period pain and you go to a doctor and the doctor’s like, ‘It’s just your period,’ — it actually can be a symptom of something else,” she said.
Take charge of your health and education
Learn more about your female anatomy so you can take good care of your gynaecological health. If you have unusual symptoms related to your period or your vagina, don’t be afraid to seek help. Find a gynaecologist you’re comfortable with and work with them until you find a treatment or solution that resolves your symptoms. In the meantime, if you’re dealing with menstrual cramps, Dr Ruth and Riva have some advice that may help.
“The Vagina Dialogues” by LUÜNA naturals takes place throughout the month of August. Find out what’s next on the program.
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