It took Kristina Jarvis more than a decade to understand what was happening in her own body.
Jarvis, now 40, says she began experiencing symptoms related to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) as a teenager, but her problems were continually blamed on stress. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s, after he’d pushed for a hormone test, that an abnormal result and an ultrasound finally confirmed he had the hormone disorder.
But even then, Jarvis describes how her doctor told her not to worry about it until she wanted to have a baby, since PCOS can contribute to fertility problems. When another doctor later referred her to a specialist, it was only then that she began to understand the other ways PCOS could affect her, from hair loss to insulin resistance.
Jarvis spoke Wednesday when the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation (AWHF) released a new report showing how “taboos” in women’s health contribute to real medical problems being dismissed or misdiagnosed.
“By treating these disorders and other women’s health issues as a problem related to reproduction, people’s overall health and well-being is ignored,” Jarvis said.
“In terms of women’s health research, there is a worrying lack of awareness and care from many, but not all, physicians.”
The report, Survey of Silence: Exploring Taboos in Women’s Health, surveyed 2,200 Albertans, the vast majority of whom identify as women. The report notes that the health issues being examined also apply to transgender men and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth.
Data was collected over several weeks last summer, and participants were invited to participate via an online panel.
The executive director of the Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute, Dr. Sandra Davidge, said there may be a perception that “women’s health” is limited to the time of pregnancy, but there are many more issues that can affect quality of life.
Respondents reported an average of five pelvic health problems each, from recurrent yeast infections to endometriosis and pelvic floor dysfunction.
Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they find it difficult to talk to health providers about their pelvic and gynecological concerns, and only about a quarter said they find their doctor “very knowledgeable” about gynecological and reproductive health.
The report describes how the continued social unacceptability of talking openly about things like periods and menopause leads not just to a general lack of awareness, but to a normalization of symptoms that might actually be cause for concern.
“Many women’s symptoms have been dismissed by their loved ones and healthcare professionals as ‘simply part of being a woman,’ leading them to isolation and hopelessness and even leading some to consider suicide,” the AWHF document says. .
Dr. Jane Shulz, a urogynecologist at Lois Hole Hospital for Women, said that one in three women will suffer from pelvic floor disorders. But problems like urine leakage and pelvic pain are not discussed.
“The key to this is breaking down these stigmas and improving the education of women so they know the pathways to care,” she said, adding that more support for research is also needed, as well as good education for care providers. medical.
Jarvis said doctors need to make sure they’re equipped to provide good care, but said it’s important to fight stigma rooted in their own communities.
“Believe in yourself. Believe what you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, what you’re noticing,” he said.
“You have to be a very active defender. The reality is that no one can defend you better than you. So you have to be the one to stand up and ask the questions.”
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