What women should know about their health risk factors and preventing disease Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

Research shows that when women take care of themselves, the health of their families improves. But as the primary caregivers for their children, spouses and parents, women too often neglect their own health care needs while tending to the priorities of others.

Smart Business spoke to Linda Chung, M.D., obstetrician/gynecologist at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, and Jane Kakkis, M.D., medical director of breast surgery at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, to learn more.

Do certain diseases affect men and women differently?

While heart disease is the leading cause of death for males and females, underdiagnosis and subtle, often silent, symptoms result in more women than men dying from the disease. For women, symptoms may include nausea or dizziness; uncomfortable pressure or tightness; squeezing, fullness or heaviness in the chest that does not go away in a few minutes; cold sweats or pounding heart; pain radiating up the shoulders and neck or down the arms or back; difficulty breathing; and/or shortness of breath. Men say they feel crushing chest pain, like an elephant sitting on their chest. Activities as simple as lunchtime walking routines, desk exercises and replacing unhealthy snacks and sweets with vegetables and fruit can help reduce the risk.

Has there been progress in breast cancer?

Thanks to education and awareness, coupled with early detection and better treatment, breast cancer survival rates have improved 2 percent annually over the last decade. Like other chronic diseases, it’s important to practice prevention by exercising, controlling your weight and limiting alcohol intake. Informing your doctor of family history, and having yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams are key to early detection. Although controversial, we believe there is a benefit for women to examine their breasts every month.

The MemorialCare Breast Centers are nationally recognized for their comprehensive approach to breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Each center uses the latest technology and techniques to aid in early detection and deliver the most advanced and coordinated treatment options.

What about female cancers?

Women are at risk for gynecological cancers that attack the tissues and organs of the reproductive system, and include cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers. While the symptoms vary by the type of cancer, they may include pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, persistent abdominal swelling or bloating, ongoing bowel changes, like constipation and diarrhea, and unintended weight loss or gain.

Risks can be reduced by getting regular pap smears, avoiding smoking and limiting exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus that in some cases, when it is left undetected or untreated, may progress into cervical cancer.

What is the most common cancer?

Lung cancer, rare until the 1930s when smoking increased dramatically, is the most prevalent, surpassing breast cancer as the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. About 90 percent of lung cancers result from tobacco use, which contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, many shown to be cancer-causing. Nonsmokers residing with a smoker have a 24 percent higher risk for developing lung cancer than nonsmokers who don’t live with a smoker. In many developing countries, incidence is decreasing, thanks to early education about the dangers of smoking and effective smoking cessation programs.

Are there other diseases primarily affecting women?

Among the diseases affecting women, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and endometriosis are important to mention. Of the 44 million Americans with highly preventable osteoporosis, 69 percent are women. To combat and lessen affects of osteoporosis, keep your bones strong with weight-bearing physical activities, avoid fractures, maintain active lifestyles, ensure adequate consumption of calcium and vitamin D and discuss possible risks and prevention with your doctor.

Urinary track infections, or UTIs, are more common in women, with one in five developing UTIs during their lifetime. UTIs occurring during pregnancy can lead to premature delivery. Endometriosis, a reproductive condition that affects nearly 100 million women around the world, causes pelvic pain, heavy periods and irregularity with the menstrual cycle. Without treatment, the symptoms worsen and it can cause infertility.

How can employers help women stay well?

Partner with hospitals to offer education, screenings and wellness activities for your employees and their families. MemorialCare Health System, for example, provides specialized diagnostic and treatment programs just for women as well as online risk assessments, tools and information at our website, memorialcare.org. Remind your employees that taking care of themselves and their families is essential to living longer, healthier and happier lives. When individuals partner with doctors and hospitals by learning their family medical history, educating themselves about medical issues, paying attention to changes in their bodies and taking even simple steps to improve their health, the results can be significant and everyone benefits.