Archives for February 2013

Furthering Women’s Health Through Feminism

Jenni Brighton is a childbirth educator, graduate student in psychology and mother of three active boys, and several angel babies. She is c0-founder of The Amethyst Network http://theamethystnetwork.org/ and author of an article featuring her stories of miscarriage and pregnancy loss in the Winter 2012 issue of Sunstone magazine. 

I think it is time we talk about women’s health, particularly as relates to reproductive health, but not completely limited to that.

One of the major things that second wave feminism did was to bring focus and research to the fact that women’s bodies are not the same as men’s (shocker!). They are the ones behind the recommendations for regular mammograms and pap smears. They are also the ones behind the now well-known information that women’s heart attacks have very different symptoms from men’s.

This has been a good start. As a childbirth educator though, I still see SERIOUS discrepanciesbetween what the research shows and what is happening in typical practice in prenatal, birth, and postpartum care. (For example c-section rates in the USA are triple what the World Health Organization recommends). Unfortunately, individual women often not do not have the education, resources, or sometimes even feel like they have the RIGHT to disagree with what a medical professional may say.

There are some specific issues in this category that I want to bring up, but first I want to state for the record that this is not about there being a “right” or “wrong” way to choose a healthcare provider, or have a baby, or deal with depression, or any of those things. This is not a mommy wars issue. What this IS is a discussion of some simple facts:

  1. medical practice needs to catch up with the research (this is especially prevalent in obstetric care)
  2. women need to have information
  3. women need to be empowered to have a say in their own health and care

Issue 1–birth trauma.

Do you know who is at high risk for a traumatic birth?
Every woman who has been sexually abused (1 in 3).
Every woman who has experienced pregnancy/infant loss (1 in 4).
Every woman with a prior traumatic birth experience (1 in 4).

These risk factors are well documented as are the numbers of women who experience them. Inother words, half or more of childbearing women are at high risk for having a traumatic birth experience…and yet nobody is doing research on prevention of the trauma. The risk factors are known, and there is plenty written about treatment for the depression, anxiety, or even PTSD that many women experience after giving birth. But nobody is addressing that middle step of
prevention. This is an issue that I am actively involved in trying to correct. It’s why I am certifying as a childbirth educator, and why I am getting a masters degree in psychology. Part of my class will be addressing these risk factors, and working to help the women process their experiences and make empowered choices for their birth so as to lower the likelihood of having a traumatic experience. (For example, an abuse victim might chose an epidural over a non-medicated birth, so as to avoid having the out-of-control birthing sensations trigger flashbacks to abuse
experiences.)

As I increase my study in this area, I am also working on putting together a booklet that I am hoping that other childbirth educators can use to enhance their classes. And if all goes as I’m hoping it will, I will be part of a team in a birth education organization working to make traumaprevention a part of their actual curriculum.

Issue 2–breast cancer, effective screenings, and treatments

For decades now we have raised copious amounts of money for research, and still we have…nothing. We have really not made any advances in breast cancer information, prevention, or treatment. We still have mixed information about the safety or usefulness of mammograms. There are some people who feel that the mammogram waves may actually cause cancer, especially if you are getting them annually. Even the medical associations have admitted that this may
be a possibility, and have adjusted their recommendations to a later age for starting routine mammograms (unless you are high risk), and recommend a less frequent schedule too.

It is my understanding that regular self breast exams are still the best way to know when something is amiss, and then a mammogram can validate or invalidate the concern. So feel yourself up, but then let’s get to work.

And my heart tells me that there have to be better treatment possibilities out there. Chemotherapy and radiation are both very intense treatments, but little funding is being spent to research alternatives.

One in eight women experience breast cancer. I’m betting that everyone reading this knows at least one person who has been through it. I’m betting some of you are survivors. You know better than anyone how much this matters.

Issue 3–miscarriage

This one is personal for me, as I’ve had 7 miscarriages (and only 2 live births). I started a nonprofit for miscarriage support, education, and advocacy in fact. I saw several different doctors/midwives in dealing with my miscarriages. Most were not very empathetic or helpful. 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in loss, so one would think that prenatal care
providers would try to learn how to help those mothers! But no, in fact, the first thing that was offered to us (after the second late-term loss in a year) was to do an infertility workup.

Really?!

I do not want to discount infertility at all (that’s the next issue!) but difficulty conceiving should not be confused with difficulty carrying to term. Loss happens a lot. I’d like to see more research on how to prevent it if possible, support the
mothers (and fathers) when it does happen, and educate everybody about it so that it’s not so taboo to tell people that in my heart I have more kids than the ones you see standing here.

Issue 4–infertility

This one has not been my struggle, and I am admittedly not that educated on it. But it matters, and in many cases it affects the woman more than the man (in terms of procedures she goes through, and social stigmas that seem to assume that infertility always lies with her, even though it doesn’t). Just as the survivors of abuse and loss need safe places to tell their stories and be validated in their experiences, so do those who experience infertility.

Issue 5–sexual abuse and rape

Every single person who is subjected to forced sexual activities needs to have access to sympathetic medical personnel, rape kits, and morning after pills. These women (and sometimes men) need and deserve ongoing support (emotional, psychological, and physical). They need recognition that these experiences may negatively affect their future sex or reproductive experiences, and they need support in working through that. Not to mention stuff like prosecuting perpetrators…but that’s not the health side of it.

Issue 6–thyroid issues, adrenal fatigue, and hormone imbalances

These are common. They are WAY more common than I think most of us realize–even among apparently healthy women. These kinds of things can totally screw up a woman’s body and essentially make her sick or dysfunctional (or both) all the time. And it’s not her fault, but society doesn’t recognize that. Or, when they do, they often misdiagnose it as depression, and treat it with antidepressants. Depression is real, but it is completely separate, and Zoloft does not help an underactive thyroid or fatigued adrenals or low estrogen.

There are treatments for these issues, but there is not awareness. My neighbor had thyroid cancer and they had to remove her thyroid, so when she is lethargic she knows why. My mother started having symptoms and saw doctors, but it still took over a decade before they got her a proper diagnosis (a specific thyroid condition), and were finally able to get her on the right medications to treat the condition.

A DECADE!!! I’m not ok with that!

At one point, I thought I was depressed, I thought I had low vitamin D from years of pregnancies and breastfeeding and from living in the arctic…it turns out those things were true, but I also had severe adrenal fatigue. I was weak, lethargic, depressed, no libido, had constant infections (yeast and other illnesses), and my teeth were getting cavities at an outrageous rate in spite of having maintained my oral care… and then we finally realized it was adrenal fatigue. (The thyroid is one part of it, but in my case the thyroid tests were normal so the doctor said nope not that.) When I
started a program to treat my adrenal system as a whole, I started feeling better.

Within a Mormon paradigm, these issues may be more common than we realize, because having a lot of kids and/or having them close together can really do a number on your adrenals. Your body does best if it has several years to recover between pregnancies, but many women do not give it that break.

Furthermore, if a woman’s adrenals are fatigued, and she gets pregnant, her body will actually pull from the child’s adrenal system as it comes online during the second trimester. This can make mother feel better, but it can lead to the child having poorer adrenal health (including weakened immune systems and really bad teeth). So adrenal health isn’t just a for-yourself thing. If you’re having kids, it affects them too!

As a closing note, there are also doctors (and other providers) of both sexes who buy into the idea that “the doctor always knows best” and that the client or patient should shut up and follow orders. Yes, these providers went to medical school, and I do not discount that. However, in spite of the best intentions, few professionals are able to stay truly on top of all the research being done. And many are so busy treating people that they really are not current on the research at all.

There needs to be respect in BOTH directions. And when a medical professional ignores a woman’s concerns, or pushes her around, or abuses her (mentally, physically, sexually, emotionally) then it NEEDS to matter. I, personally, am troubled by how litigation-happy many people seem to be (and by the fact that high malpractice insurance costs are driving good people out of the field, and driving up medical costs), but there does need to be SOME way of addressing these abuses.