Category Archives: Women’s Health

Happy Vagina, Happy You

I’ve found two things that, until recently, were fool-proof ways to earn myself a yeast infection: taking antibiotics and having an IUD. The antibiotics thing is mostly out of my control (I combat the antibiotics yeast infections with probiotics but that only does so much). The IUD thing, however, I’ve since managed to solve.

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An IUD is an intrauterine device, a form of birth control inserted into the uterus. Mine is a Mirena, the hormonal kind. (I tried to get the copper, non-hormonal IUD but it is slightly larger than the Mirena and, turns out, my uterus is too small. The copper IUD fell into my cervix. Luckily, the Mirena has stayed in my uterus. I have a cool ultrasound image of my uterus I wanted to insert here but I can’t find it right now.)

The first several months of having my IUD, I got a yeast infection nearly monthly. My doctor told me that there’s no research showing a connection between IUDs and yeast infections, but that if the discomfort persisted, I should get it removed. My mom also told me that when she was on hormonal birth control, she suffered from regular yeast infections. With this disappointing news in mind and the yeast infections persisting, I decided to change a few other things before giving up my IUD.

Wearing skirts and dresses: The same doctor mentioned above is a regular skirt wearer. She told me she never wears pants because she finds that her vagina is healthier and more comfortable when she lets it breath. I started wearing more dresses and skirts and, while I didn’t notice a drastic change, I did find myself more comfortable.

Sleeping naked: I don’t know why I ever wore pajamas to bed. Maybe because I’m from Minnesota, where it’s freezing 5 months out of the year. Regardless, I definitely shouldn’t have been sleeping in underwear all those years – being naked is way comfier! This produced a major change for me: my yeast infections stopped happening! I still have my Mirena and I’ve been infection-free for months.

And here you’ll find 5 other vaginal health lifestyle tips that I actively practice and agree with.

Beyond what I’ve described, there are a few other vaginal health tricks you can try. I’m not as experienced with these so I would recommend doing further research before trying some of them:

  • Drink cranberry juice: a friend of mine who used to suffer from bacterial vaginosis (kind of the opposite of a yeast infection, I guess; also a bacterial imbalance) did this for a while, in addition to wearing cotton undies.
  • Use garlic right at the beginning of a yeast infection: I know people who’ve stopped a yeast infection in its tracks by inserting a clove or part of a clove of garlic in their vagina. You have to do this early on in the infection for this to be effective. I also have read cautions against this so, again, do your own research.
  • Yogurt can be more than food: there’s nothing like cool yogurt as relief from the stinging or itching of a yeast infection! Apply liberally. Get ready, it’s gross.

Hooray for healthy vaginas!

Written by Magdalena Kaluza.

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The case against Breast Cancer Awareness Month

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The White House lit up pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

While waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office last week, I picked up a copy of the October issue of Harper’s Bazaar. As I flipped through the pages upon pages of ads, articles, and fashion spreads, I noticed one overriding theme—pink. On one page, an ad for the Breast Cancer Research Fund featuring a hip cartoon woman with colorful hair and sassy pink lips; on another, an editor-recommended pink lip-gloss with the proceeds going to breast cancer research; I flipped to a third page to find an ad for a limited-edition mascara with a pink ribbon printed down the side of the tube.

On another occasion, I might have completely overlooked this excess of pink ribbon advertising. But as it happens, I had already been thinking a lot about breast cancer in the previous days. I was particularly affected by a striking set of photographs by Angelo Merendino documenting his late wife and her journey through breast cancer. All the love, the pain—the rawness of living and dying and losing—was so very real in those photos. They seemed to inhabit a different world from the cheerful pink advertisements that cluttered the magazine in the doctor’s office.

I recently watched a documentary recommended to me by another RLA member—Pink Ribbons, Inc. The film explores the phenomenon of the pink ribbon and how breast cancer awareness and fundraising came to become a culture unto itself. Central to the story are Susan G. Komen for a Cure and the Avon Foundation, two large non-profit foundations that routinely host walks and runs in support of breast cancer research. These events have been inundated with corporate sponsors who pledge to donate a small portion of their proceeds to breast cancer research—provided, of course, that you continue to buy their products. Everything, it turns out, sells better in pink.

The great hypocrisy of these corporations is that they purport to be raising money for a cure while simultaneously using ingredients in their products that can serve as risk factors for the disease. A crucial theme throughout the entire movie was turning a critical eye toward fundraising efforts. As the film points out, cancer fundraising is the only movement where number of dollars raised seems to supersede where those dollars are actually going. In 2011, only 15% of Susan G. Komen’s donations went to fund research grants. And for the grants the foundation does fund, it is surprisingly difficult to find details about what type of research is being conducted, by whom, and to what end. Much of the breast cancer awareness movement focuses on early detection and treatment, while a shockingly small amount of resources are allocated to prevention and research exploring the root causes of the disease.

The film also raised a number of other points that could serve as entire topics unto themselves. For example, breast cancer has only become relevant to wider society because white, middle class women have become the face of the disease, even though black women have a higher mortality rate. The intense focus on breast cancer has also been used to water down feminism and divert attention from other more “controversial” women’s health issues, such as access to contraceptives and abortions.

Additionally, the choice of the color pink itself negates the lived experiences of women with breast cancer. Cancer is scary, unexpected, malicious, invasive; pink is warm, innocent, soft, and safe. And that is exactly the point. Corporations use pink to capitalize on this idea of hope and sisterhood, and to make people forget, if only temporarily, the painful realities of terminal illness. In an especially poignant interview with a support group for Stage IV breast cancer patients, a woman talked about how the rhetoric around breast cancer fundraising culture isolates those women who are in the end stages of the disease. Talk of “survivors” and the “fight” against cancer inherently suggests that those who succumb to their disease—those who “lose their battle”—have failed in a way that survivors have not.

As I watched Pink Ribbons, Inc., I felt a number of complex emotions: empathy for the women grappling with this illness, intense anger at the corporations that capitalize on their pain, and frustration that the pink ribbon movement has strayed so far from its original goals. Mixed in with all of these other feelings, I was also surprised by my own sense of accountability and even shame for the ways in which I have personally contributed to this culture. In high school, I was an active participant in a similar cancer fundraising event, Relay for Life. My freshman year of college, I served on the steering committee of my school’s Relay. I, too, have raised money for “cancer research” without paying close enough attention to what happens to those funds. I, too, have bought into these messages of hope and blind optimism.

Because let’s face it—in the face of so much pain and senseless loss, there is a need for that kind of assurance and connection. Movements don’t come from nowhere. They are built on us—on our personal experiences, our needs, and our hopes and desires. It’s no wonder so many people get caught up in the breast cancer awareness mania. They need something to put their faith in.

So where do we go from here? How do we balance out this need for shared support with the necessity of a sustainable movement that actually meets the health needs of women rather than further exploiting us? Well, we can start simply by educating ourselves. Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a great start, but there are many other resources to go to for more information and to support such as the Think Before You Pink campaign and the Breast Cancer Fund’s Beyond the Pink project. Next, we can hold corporations accountable for the health safety of products they create by pushing legislation such as Chemical Safety Improvement Act and by only buying products that are toxin-free. Lastly, we can work to create supportive spaces and movements that serve as alternatives to corporate-sponsored runs and walks, and that are inclusive of all women’s voices—including Stage IV patients and their families. It’s time women pushed beyond breast cancer “awareness” and into breast cancer action.

Have you had your annual exam this year?

**Edit: This post has been edited to reflect neutral nouns

The idea of scheduling your annual exam or a well-person exam  might send shivers down your spine. Let’s be honest-not many people that have vaginal canals look forward to getting a metal object shoved up their vagina. In fact, I could write an entire article just on OB/GYN horror stories alone!

Having that yearly visit with your health care provider is very important in preventing cancer, infertility and promotes general health through preventative care.

Here is a run down of what happens during your annual exam and what to talk to your health care provider about.

Pap Smear

A pap smear is test to detect if you have any abnormal cells on your cervix. Most health providers recommend that anyone with a cervix start getting pap smear every year starting at the age of 21 even if they have been sexually active before the age of 21. If your test comes back negative or “normal” then you can talk to your doctor about the need to have you pap every year.

It might be worth talking to your doctor about getting an HPV test along side your pap test. There is plenty of research on when to have an HPV test as well as guidelines on how often you will need to come in for your pap test depending on the combined results of these two. Most doctors recommend having the HPV test along with your pap test at age 30 because most abnormal pap test resolve on their own. Your and your provider will discuss your test results, along with your next steps once your test results come back in a few weeks.

Pelvic Exam  

Along with your pap test your provider will conduct a manual pelvic exam. This means the will insert a few fingers into your vagina and use the other hand to press on your abdomen. This is to assess the ovaries, uterus and other reproductive organs (if you have those organs).

Breast/Chest Exam

Your provider will check your upper chest or breasts while you are sitting up and lying down. This exam does require you to take your shirt off and wear a gown. It is important to have clinical breast/chest exam once a year. In addition to your annual clinical breast/chest exam, it is pertinent to conduct your own self check every month 1-2  weeks after your period. If you do not menstruate, you can talk to your doctor about what she/he/they might recommend. Your annual visit is a great time to learn the proper way to conduct your own breast/chest exam at home as well as talk to your provider about your breasts/chest. This is also an opportune time to talk to your provider about any history of lumps in your breasts/chest, discharge, change in texture of skin, or change in the appearance of your nipples, and any scarring from surgery you might be concerned about. However, it is critical to contact your healthcare provider as soon as your notice any change in your breast tissue or lumps in your upper chest and armpit area. Your clinician can talk to you about what to look for and what is considered “normal” according to your body.

STD Tests

Some people do not think they need to have any sexual transmitted infection test performed at their exam because they are in a monogamous relationship or because they exclusively have sex one gender. But the most common sign or symptom of a sexually transmitted infection is no sign at all. It is important to get a full spectrum STD check once a year, every time you have had unprotected sex, and anytime you have a new partner.

In general, it takes about 2 weeks for someone to test positive for the most common STDs  like gonorrhea, and chlamydia and 3 months for an HIV test to come up as positive. Depending on your unique circumstance, the clinician may recommend a time-frame for any follow-up testing that may be needed.

Here is a list of common infections, not all of them are transmitted through sexual contact

In addition, your provider will do a heart and lung check. Take this time to talk about anything that might concern you such as birth control methods, your sexual history, sexuality, sexual orientation, mental health, menstrual cycle, new bumps or growths on your skin and anything else you are concerned about. Remember, it is important to find a provider that is respectful, knowledgeable, non-judgmental, and culturally competent. You want to get the most out of this visit and it is important to be able to build a trusting relationship with your healthcare provider.

Additional Resources

List of podcasts created by the CDC of HPV and cervical cancer

Cervical, Ovarian, Uterine, Vaginal, Vulvar. Get the facts about gynecologic cancer.                  GYN_symptoms_matrix                            Take Charge. Take The Test

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