Here by my home in South Florida is a cemetery where a tombstone is inscribed with the simple and powerful words: "Beloved daughter sister and mother, Here lies a virtuous woman." With her untimely death at only 40 years old and a legacy of four beautiful children, she has become a symbol of the failure of "women's health" in the United States to me.
This "virtuous" woman died of the biggest health risk of all: silence. Faithful to a physically abusive spouse for nearly 20 years, she was diagnosed with HIV 11 years into the marriage and fought with little to no medical insurance to stay alive -- not telling anyone about the disease or her treatment challenges. She lost her battle in 2008, after many long and painful years of suffering to the disease and to the violence in silence.
Domestic violence. HIV. Underinsured Americans in the U.S. medical system. All areas of health care "hush hush." Maybe if we don't talk about things publicly or privately, they will just go away.
WRONG! Breast cancer is no longer a death sentence precisely because we fought to have our voices heard as women and for women -- for research, for low-cost to no-cost mammography, for safer treatments and for general awareness and prevention. Susan G. Komen gave voice to the breast cancer movement. We now have real progress and more optimistic survival rates.
Perhaps women's health is really about fighting for the lack of shame in our bodies as women and the ability to find our voice to talk about them. Here is a startling fact: Up to half of American women over 50 years of age will suffer potentially debilitating pelvic health conditions from moderate to severe urinary incontinence to fibroids to uterine prolapse, but few women actually break their silence of "shame" and talk to their health care provider about pelvic health. (For information on the prevalence of the pelvic health problem and U.S. hospital approaches to finding a solution, download a free white paper here.)
Medical research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology demonstrates over and over again that finding your "voice," articulating your needs and sharing your problems, no matter how embarrassing or difficult, can help you power up your immune system to prevent and fight disease.
My career as the president of the Spirit of Women Hospital Network has been dedicated to helping women find their voices and use them within the U.S. health care system. It is with particular pride that we design and launch programs to hundreds of thousands of American women each year that help us feel more powerful and beautiful on our journey to good health. We also have a magazine that features "shame-busting" articles and frank advice on dealing with women's health issues that are usually suffered in science.
I have been told that the woman who lost her life to silence was inspired by Michael Jackson's song "Man in the Mirror." It might behoove us all to take to heart the advice in that song as we work both to reform our health care system and to prevent disease in our lives.
"If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change."
Speak for yourself and others you care about. Don't ignore violence in the homes and lives around you. Know that domestic abuse IS a family health issue, a disease we can prevent. Act on your own potentially embarrassing health conditions by talking with a health care provider today, or this week at the very latest. If you are sexually active, use your voice to ask for a comprehensive STD screening. Many health care providers make the same assumptions that we want to about the reliability of marital fidelity or the consistency of "safe practices" in single women of all ages.
Join me, and pledge to become a women's health advocate with a clear voice. Together we can eradicate suffering in silence, the shame about our bodies that prevents us from getting the care we need, and the senseless deaths of women due to waiting too long and talking too little.