What is it about women and their health that begins with pregnancy and ends with menopause? I am talking discourse about as well as medical interest in. Why the overwhelmingly general disregard towards the rest, particularly regarding ovulation/menstruation related hormonal fluctuations and their impact (severe in some cases) on many women’s overall health and well-being? It seems that the answer lies somewhere amidst general disdainful attitudes to women, over-medicalization of anything concerning women’s reproductive organs and further patriarchal constructions of women’s role, as in that of child bearer. Perhaps the societal leaning towards “having it all” (home, family, career) lifestyle plays a part also, no one wants to admit weaknesses, particularly those so out of your control as hormonal induced physical and mental craziness. Accordingly women’s health is constructed within a focused interest on the beginning and end of birth ability. Why does general discussion on such important matters not consider the effects that constant hormonal changes have on women, from the time of first hormonal changes leading towards the beginning of menstruation until the end of their lives? There are plenty more living years available to most women post-birthing ability! Even amidst valuable activism concerned with reproductive rights (Big up the @freesafelegal campaign) and menstruation (Big up the excellent re: Cycling blog) there is a bit of a shying away from acknowledging the very large part that hormones have to play in dictating how women’s lives run. Arguments over reproductive rights correctly centre on the natal/foetal end of the spectrum, it is important to stay on message there while malevolent forces try their damnedest to remove choice from women over what happens in their own bodies. Nevertheless, the effects of hormones could be a very important part of this debate; consideration of women’s well-being regarding unwanted pregnancies also needs to raise awareness of the hormonal shit-storm that is involved in terminating or continuing a pregnancy. Hormonal changes in this instance can be so powerful that it really should be understood that a decision to terminate a pregnancy is not one anyone takes lightly. The effects do not just end the moment the invading foetus is removed, but still have all the potential to radically alter a woman’s hormonal landscape and in turn her general well-being, quite possibly for the rest of her life.
I have spent many years trying to get to the bottom of my own health problems related to my ovarian cycle and menstrual issues. I have spent €1000s on GP bills, consultant fees, transport costs to visit various clinics, and nonsensical vitamin/herbal supplements. The outcome of which is that I have given up on trying to get help and just accepted my lot. I treat my symptoms when they are unbearable, antihistamines for itching/prickling, paracetemol/ibuprofen when I cannot handle the pain anymore. I suffer the insomnia and catch up on sleep when I enter the other end of the sleep disorder spectrum. I have accepted that most days I will feel somewhat like shit, and am happy when symptoms are not so intrusive that I can successfully ignore them for the day. Tragic really isn’t it? But this is the crux of the issue, at 37 and choosing not to breed now (having already gifted the world my superb progeny 17 years ago), I am of no interest to the “women’s health” medical world. Unless I want to buy in to alternative women’s health world and do the supplements thing or start eliminating foods from my diet, “eat clean” and so on. That is just snake oil rubbish in my opinion.
During my years of research on this topic I have come across one example of a Doctor (in London) who seems to take women’s hormonal problems seriously to some extent, Professor John Studd. He believes that “the term Ovarian Cycle Syndrome should be used to include all of the cyclical, physical and emotional symptoms that occur monthly following ovulation and that this name should replace PMS or PMDD”. His clinic is focused on gynaecological endocrinology. I once considered if I could afford to go see him at one stage, but the combination of prohibitive fees and my worry/scepticism regarding how many visits would be required put me off. Having to travel to another city in another country to try getting the right help did not seem like a very sensible or helpful way to try combat health problems which cause you additional stress. I am yet to find a medical professional who views women’s health similarly here in Ireland. Thus I remain unwell.
The general medical world does not concern itself with women who are not birthing, dying or ending their ability to birth. Understanding of women’s health centres on Birth, Abortion, Women specific Cancers and the Menopause. Consideration of the havoc that hormones play with women’s general wellbeing is not as popular field of medicine so it seems. There is plenty of outside interest in women’s health and well-being if it relates to the birthing ability/status of a woman. Meanwhile there is little interest in the mental and physical health status of a woman trapped in a prison of wildly oscillating hormones. It begs the question why do we not have a society which recognises that because women are genetically organised to give birth that that goes hand in hand with a complex hormonal structure which can often disrupt the bearers everyday lives. Why can’t we be more understanding of how extreme that can be for many people and thus be more kind, whether we are medical professionals, peers, colleagues, family members or friends? Why are menstruators not encouraged to be vocal about their on-going adventures in menstruation? Why is the cyclical nature of the ovarian cycle not widely recognised? I have always tried to be a menstrual activist; long before my ovarian cycle began to qualitatively disrupt my life so much, I was always vocal about menstruating. I had no shame in openly discussing my menstrual travails with school peers, both male and female; I felt it was important that I did not hide something that I was primed to experience for at least 30 years of my life. Now that I have been forced to understand the wider cyclical nature of the whole female hormonal experience I believe it is necessary to start advocating for ovarian cycle activism. It is important for all women’s rights activists to appreciate this and integrate ideas surrounding the cycle in to the broader discourse. Let’s recognise and understand the intertwined nature of the ovarian cycle with other issues that affect women directly and respond with empathy.