In celebration of Women’s Health Week, the Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, issued a press release encouraging women to take steps to a healthier lifestyle, such as getting regular health checkups. It is a fitting but gentle declaration that, unfortunately, will change little in the lives of American women overall.
It appears that when American women won the right to do anything, it spawned an expectation that women should do EVERYTHING. We gained access to better jobs by assimilating into male-oriented businesses that reward achievement at any cost instead of encouraging balance. We’ve fallen on the sword of success, conditioned to think that, in order to be whole, we must do it all and do it all well – at home, in the community, and at work.
Personally, I believe that the President should declare women’s health a national priority, a commitment to deliberate and lasting change in our culture. Visionaries of a better human condition, women bring soul to our communities. Women juggle the burdens of daily life by managing demanding families and difficult jobs, drawing from a female reserve that has passed down from the ancient mothers to daughters, again and again. Women are the peace makers, the healers, the organizers, the teachers. Women are the song of our culture and yet are, too often, marginalized by their condition.
About one in three American women will develop heart disease in her lifetime and roughly the same number will be diagnosed with some form of cancer. One in three will suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and one in five will get shingles. A tenth will get ulcers and urinary tract infections and kidney stones. One in 12 will cope with major depression. And, although women will correctly identify risk factors in their own bodies, they underestimate their own personal risk for any of the diseases that will eventually affect them.
We need the mothers and wives and daughters of every American neighborhood to be strong and healthy, just as we need them to teach the next generation of women about wellness by modeling behaviors that become ingrained in our way of life . . . a healthier way of life. We must declare an end to discrimination in access to care, an end to violence against women, and an end to women sacrificing themselves in order for their family to succeed. We need to start the conversation that women are so valued in our society that we will invest in their physical and mental and spiritual well being.
We are more compassionate when we listen to the wisdom of women. We are better able to see beauty and grace around us, better able to heal after tragedy, better suited to embrace whole of humanity.
Let us start now . . . this day . . . to make women’s health one of the true accomplishments of the American people, one of the great triumphs of our time.
Annette Leal Mattern is a 23-year survivor of ovarian cancer, 2-year survivor of breast cancer and a patient advocate to women coping with cancer. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance as President-Elect and Chair of the Marketing & Communications Committee, and is co-founder and president of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona. She is the author of Outside The Lines of Love, Life and Cancer.