It's Women's History Month — and celebrating how far women have come in history also means celebrating improvements in women's health.
Women's health has benefitted from many significant advancements in the past few decades, from new knowledge about women-specific health conditions all the way to advancing women's lifespans. The focus on the health and wellness needs of women is stronger than ever before — and it's saving millions of women's lives.
General health care research is critical, but women face a specific set of challenges that require understanding and awareness. And recently, they've been getting the attention they deserve. Here are 3 advancements in women's health worth celebrating.
1. Breast cancer is being found much earlier — and it's no longer a death sentence.
Thirty years ago, breast cancer
seemed to be an insurmountable challenge in the medical field. In 1985, death rates were at an all-time high, when about 33 out of every 100,000 women lost their lives to the disease. What's more, breast cancer prevention was a distant reality.
Thanks to increased screening, breast cancer is now being detected earlier. In 1990, only half of all American women over 50 years old had a mammogram in the past 2 years. Now, 73% of women over 50 years old have had a mammogram in the past 2 years. This has led to an estimated 10% drop in breast cancer deaths.
This jump in screening can be largely attributed to awareness, but it's also a result of the fact that most insurance companies are now required to cover breast cancer screening for women over 40 years old.
What's more, if breast cancer is found early, a woman's chances of beating it are much higher. Federally-funded research has led to better treatment options, which has brought the death rate down from nearly 33 to about 21 out of every 100,000 women.
Breast cancers that are considered inoperable are now being treated, thanks to hormonal medications. And breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy) has replaced the full mastectomy for early-stage breast cancers — meaning more women can keep the bodies they love after fighting their battles.
The ultimate goal is to prevent cancer — not just diagnose and treat. When it comes to breast cancer, that's becoming increasingly possible every day. Women are able to undergo testing for known breast cancer-causing genes, and there are medical options available to those that test positive.
Plus, many women are becoming more aware of how to prevent breast cancer on their own by leading a healthy lifestyle full of nutritious food and exercise.
Breast cancer used to spark fear in women around the world. Now, screening, diagnosis, and treatment are more effective than ever. Women can have the confidence of a medical team well-equipped to not only maintain the quality of life of those who are diagnosed with breast cancer, but prevent it from ever spreading in the first place.
2. The leading killer of women, heart disease, is becoming less of a threat.
Even though both men and women are affected by heart disease, women have a particular set of concerns. For instance, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure — which can lead to dangerous delays in treatment. Now, these signs are more well-known, and women can be more vigilant at keeping an eye on their own health.
Several federally-funded programs have been aimed at spreading heart disease awareness among women and reducing risk factors, including:
- WISEWOMAN, which screens low-income women for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, and invites women who are considered high-risk to join lifestyle programs, like walking clubs and cooking classes
- The Heart Truth Campaign — often recognized by its symbol of a red dress — is aimed at educating women about heart disease and has increased awareness by over 30% in its first 7 years alone
- Make the Call — Don't Miss a Beat, which, based on important differences regarding treatment and prevention, helps to educate women about the signs of a heart attack and empower them to call 911 right away
On top of these critical programs, recent laws now require most insurance companies to provide preventative care and screening for heart disease, so more women are able to prevent heart disease in the first place.
3. Smoking and lung cancer rates are both on the decline.
Movies set in the 60s and 70s often depicted women chain-smoking cigarettes — a scary reflection of what was actually happening across the country. In 1963, a shocking 34% of American women were smokers — the highest this number has and, hopefully, ever will be.
In 1964, the first federal report outlined the harmful effects of smoking both during pregnancy and as a cause of lung cancer in women. Following this report were several others, which highlighted risks, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, as well as women-specific risks, including:
- Painful periods
- Earlier menopause
Now, millions more women are leading smoke-free lives. This may be due to these federal reports or as a result of programs, such as the Tips From Former Smokers
campaign, which resulted in 1.6 million more people attempting to quit smoking.
As for pregnant women, smoking can put their babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and low birth weight. Fortunately, the number of pregnant women who reported smoking while pregnant has gone down from nearly 20% in 1989 to 7.2% in 2016.
Less smoking also leads to fewer cases of lung cancer, which is the second-leading cause of death in women after heart disease. As a result of fewer smokers — plus more research, improved treatment options, and more public health policies — lung cancer deaths continue to decline each year.
Despite the fact that smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, 1 in 5 American women diagnosed with lung cancer has actually never smoked. This is because women are more likely than men to have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which may be due to the hormone estrogen.
Still, women are more likely than men to live longer with lung cancer. They also have better survival rates after surgery, including for NSCLC, and they respond better to chemotherapy medications used to treat lung cancer.
Despite women's increased risk of certain types of lung cancer, increased awareness, screening
, and treatment options are supporting women as they fight their battles against lung cancer.
Women's Health: Plenty of Progress — But Much More To Go
The struggles of women have ranged from political to social to medical over the years, and in more ways than one, women are gaining ground and seeing significant progress.
When it comes to women's health, these few advancements are just the beginning. There have also been important achievements in regards to the mental health of women, cervical cancer prevention and treatment, safer and more accessible options for birth control, and so many more.
But the fight is not over. About 13% of women in the US are still considered to be in fair or poor health, and diseases like heart disease and cancer are still claiming the lives of women much too young.
As scientists and physicians work hard to improve the prevention and treatment of women-specific health conditions, it’s up to women everywhere to take their health into their own hands. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, going to your annual physical, and paying attention to your body all go a long way toward benefiting your health.
Together, more progress can be made — and millions more women's lives can be saved.
Do you have questions about women's health and how to prioritize your wellbeing? Call 610-738-2300 to find a health care provider today.