Category Archive: Women’s Health

October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Hispanic women holding breast cancer awareness ribbonsEach October women are reminded of the importance of early breast cancer detection.  Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women, following skin cancers.  A mammogram is the best way to detect breast cancer in the early stages, when it is easier to treat.  Women of any age can develop breast cancer, so it’s important to be aware of risk factors and proactive about health care decisions.

Most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease.  However, a woman’s risk does increase if she has a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, sister) with breast cancer.  Having multiple other family members with the disease on either the mother’s or father’s side of the family also increases the risk.  Given this family history, even very young women can develop breast cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), other risk factors for developing breast cancer include the following:

Age–  The risk increases after age 50.

Taking Hormones–  Hormone replacement therapy during menopause can raise the risk.

Reproductive history–  Having a first pregnancy after age 30 or never being pregnant increases risk.  Early menstruation (before age 12) or late menopause (after age 55) exposes women to hormones longer, increasing their risk.

Dense breasts–  Dense breast tissue makes cancers harder to detect and raises the risk level.

Genetic mutations–  Inherited changes to specific genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 increases risk.

The best breast cancer screening tool is a mammogram.  It can detect cancers that are too small to be felt or cause symptoms.  The American Cancer Society recommends that women of average risk begin annual screening mammograms at age 45.  Some doctors recommend mammograms at age 40, depending on risk factors.  After age 54, a woman who has not had any abnormal mammograms can continue to have a mammogram every other year through age 74.  Women who have higher than average risk factors for the disease should follow the recommendations of their health care provider.

Osteoporosis – The Silent Disease

Osteoporosis patientOsteoporosis is a disease affecting approximately 10 million Americans.  The disease causes the loss of minerals from the bones, leaving them vulnerable to fractures.  Osteoporosis is more common as we age, because new bone is not being made as quickly as old bone is breaking down.  Although both men and women can develop the disease, it is more common in women.

There are no early symptoms of osteoporosis, so it is sometimes called the silent disease.  Many people do not realize they have bone loss until they experience a fracture.  Later symptoms of osteoporosis include loss of height, a stooped posture, back pain, and bone breakage.  The most frequent fractures occur in the hips, wrist, and spine.

Risk factors for osteoporosis include age, having a smaller frame, family history, white or Asian women past menopause, having thyroid or bowel disease, and taking certain medications.  The reduced level of estrogen in post-menopausal women is a strong risk factor.  Long term use of prednisone and cortisone also increases risk, as does thyroid hormone medication.

Lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.  A diet of calcium rich foods including dairy, salmon, and dark green leafy vegetables promotes bone health.  Calcium supplements may be appropriate if someone does not get enough calcium in their diet.  Vitamin D improves the body’s ability to absorb calcium.  Eating protein helps the body build strong bones.  Maintaining appropriate body weight is important.  Regular exercise can help slow bone loss.  A combination of strength training, weight-bearing, and balance exercises works best.

The National Institutes of Health recommends women should have a bone density scan at age 65.  The scan estimates bone mass and determines whether bones are thinning or weakening.  If bone density is good, women should be rescreened in 2-3 years.  The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that anyone who breaks a bone after age 50 have a bone density scan.

There is no cure for osteoporosis.  Treatment of the disease includes lifestyle changes such as modifying diet and exercise routines.  Doctors may prescribe medications that slow the breakdown of bone or help promote bone formation.

Women and Thyroid Disease

female thyroid patientAccording to the US Department of Health and Human Services, women are more likely to develop thyroid disease than men.  The risk for women increases right after a pregnancy and following menopause.  One in eight women will be diagnosed with thyroid problems during their lifetime.

The thyroid is part of the endocrine system.  It’s a butterfly shaped gland located in front of the neck.  The thyroid produces a hormone that controls the body’s metabolism rate.  The thyroid can affect a woman’s weight, heart rate, cholesterol levels, and menstrual cycles.

Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is one type of thyroid disease.  If the thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormones, the metabolism slows down.  Some symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, tiredness, joint or muscle pain, dry skin and hair, depression, and slow heart rate.  Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.  Treatment includes taking manufactured forms of thyroid hormone.

Hyperthyroidism is another type of thyroid disease.  The thyroid becomes overactive, producing too much thyroid hormone.  Symptoms can include weight loss, irregular heartbeat, trouble sleeping, lighter menstrual periods, increased sweating, and trembling in the fingers and hands.  Treatments may include medications, radioiodine, or surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.  Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.

A thyroid nodule is a swelling or growth that can develop on the thyroid gland.  There may be one or more nodules that can be solid or filled with fluid.  Ultrasound tests can be used to evaluate nodules.  Most nodules are not cancerous, so the doctor may just decide to watch and wait.  If the nodule is large or cancerous, it may be surgically removed.  Women are three times more likely than men to develop thyroid cancer.

September is thyroid cancer awareness month.  When found early, thyroid cancer is usually treatable.  A physician can perform a simple check of the thyroid gland during a routine physical examination.

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