This month South Africa celebrates National Women’s Day. What better way to mark this occasion than by gaining greater awareness of leading women’s health issues and proactive ways of keeping healthy? Mothers, daughters and grandmothers are encouraged to embrace a healthier future with preventative health measures.
“Many women are extremely busy with work commitments and caring for their families, and may prioritise the needs of others ahead of their own wellness. GEMS encourages women to invest some time in themselves by having routine health screenings for the conditions associated with their particular life stage,” says Dr Vuyo Gqola, the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) Chief Healthcare Officer.
The leading natural underlying cause of death for women highlighted in the most recent Statistics SA ‘Mortality and causes of death’ study is diabetes. “Like so many potentially life-threatening health conditions, early testing and healthy lifestyle changes may help to ensure that type 2 diabetes can be more effectively managed or even avoided,” she notes.
“Preventative health screenings are some of the best allies we have against diseases including cervical and breast cancers, diabetes, diseases of the heart and circulatory system, among others. With regular testing, these and other potential health concerns can be detected and treated early, and this is often associated with better outcomes.”
Some of the most important health checks for women to have from early adulthood include pap smears, breast examinations and blood glucose tests.
- Pap smear and HPV vaccine
- A pap smear is a test that checks for abnormal cells and the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer. The test involves your doctor taking a swab of the cells of your cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus or womb.
Once the test has been performed, the sample of cells will be tested in a laboratory and your doctor will inform you of the outcome of your results. The test is meant to give early warning of any medical issues that may be starting and allow for them to be dealt with before a serious problem develops. This is why pap smears should be performed regularly.
“One of the greatest preventative healthcare developments in our time for women in particular is the HPV vaccination, which significantly reduces the risk of cervical cancer. We strongly encourage parents with girl children aged nine or older to have them vaccinated against HPV,” Dr Gqola adds.
Breast examinations and mammograms
These tests can help to detect changes in breast tissue, which may be an indication of breast cancer.
“Women of any age should know how to perform their own breast examination. This simple technique should be practised often so that the woman becomes familiar with the texture of her breast tissue, and therefore be better placed to recognise any changes.”
According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), there are three steps for a basic self-examination:
- Look at your breasts in a mirror and check for any changes such as the skin dimpling, one breast being unusually larger than the other or unexpected discharge from the nipple.
- Lie on your back and use your left hand to check your right breast, then your right hand to check your left breast. With your fingers pressed together to make a flat surface, rub firmly over your breast, armpit and chest to the shoulder bone in small circles.
- Repeat step two while showering or seated upright in the bath using a soapy hand.
“If you detect any firm or solid lumps, which may feel like a firm round pea or be more irregular in shape, or if you notice any changes in your breast tissue, make an appointment with your family practitioner for a check-up. Remember that the texture of your breast tissue may feel more lumpy or knotty just before or around the time of your menstrual period,” Dr Gqola advises.
From the age of 40 onwards women are encouraged to have mammograms, which are a type of x-ray that shows even small areas of potentially problematic tissue. Women who have a family history that could place them at greater risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms from an earlier age.
Blood glucose testing
Diabetes is becoming more common in South Africa and the world over. Approximately three-and-a-half million South Africans are affected by either type 1 diabetes, which is often an inherited condition in which the body is unable to produce insulin, or type 2 diabetes, which is associated with insulin resistance.
“Diabetics who have not yet been diagnosed are at particular risk, as they are not receiving the treatment that can prevent further damage to their bodies, including visual impairment or kidney failure among others. A glucose tolerance test (GTT) is used to test how effectively the body is producing or using insulin to detect diabetes or insulin resistance, which may lead to type 2 diabetes,” she notes.
In order to assist diabetic GEMS members to manage their condition, the Scheme has a Diabetic Care Management Programme in place. It aims to forge closer links between the diabetic, family practitioner and healthcare service providers, which will help affected individuals to learn more about how to manage the condition better.
Bone density scans
“Women over the age of 65 years of age should speak to their family practitioner about having a bone density scan for the detection of osteoporosis. This is a condition whereby the bones become weakened and are more vulnerable to breaking. Women tend to lose bone density quicker than men, particularly after menopause,” Dr Gqola says
“GEMS has allocated a benefit for preventative care services to cover these types of proactive health screenings. Why not take advantage of this benefit this women’s month,” she concludes.