To the point

GUEST COLUMN: We Are All Out of Africa!

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By Carol Amaratunga

Forty-five years ago, as a student, I had the incomparable privilege of being accepted as a volunteer with Operation Crossroads Africa. In the summer of 1969 I was sent to the remote village of Bendaja, Liberia to help build a rural health clinic.

I have a vivid, startling memory from that summer of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, an event that is no doubt seared into the minds of those of us who are a bit older. As Neil Armstrong said, it was “a giant leap for mankind.” Seated around an open fire on that dark and cloudy evening, my Crossroads team and the villagers of Bendaja glanced up to the heavens as we listened to the Apollo mission being broadcast by the Voice of America. When the broadcast ended, one of village elders turned to me and said, “It is just an American trick.” For my part however, I was both awe-struck and devastated. How could we spend millions of dollars to send men to the moon while down here, in the villages of Africa, people were sick, destitute and hungry?

You may wonder what this story has to do with women’s health. Bear with me for my memoire has everything to do with women’s health, humanitarianism, and the current Ebola crisis in Africa. The real question is:  what can we do to help? 

It was the rainy season and the women, children and families of Bendaja Village were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. The laterite roads were awash with a blood-red mud slurry and were impassable. There were no stores, no Loblaws or President’s Choice. It was a lucky hunter who could provision his family with wild meat. The night of the moon landing, the villagers brought us some of their valued hunt. It was a feast they shared with selfless generosity.

GUEST COLUMN: (Not) Shopping our way to safety

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By Robyn Lee and Dayna Nadine Scott

Media coverage of the risks posed by brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates almost always includes advice on how to limit exposure to these chemicals in the home. Those seeking policy change often call for effective labelling of consumer products, including  “green consumer” campaigns such as “wallet cards” with long lists of chemical names for shoppers to avoid. Apparently, consumers are expected to pull these out of their wallets in the grocery aisle, at the drugstore, in the electronics superstore. These campaigns attempt to address a lack of effective government regulation of chemicals; however, they overlook the extent to which women carry out the majority of household cleaning, shopping, food preparation, and caring for the health of family members. Attempts to limit household exposure to BFRs and phthalates require additional work that consistently and disproportionately falls to women.

GUEST COLUMN: Another silicone bracelet?

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This one claims to measure toxic exposures

By Abby Lippman  

It seems that my tendency to see glasses half filled, if not empty, when others are happily seeing them brimming with new possibilities only increases with time. With this advance warning, I want to outline why I am not going to rush to get—nor to suggest others rush out to get—the newest of the wide array of color-coded silicone rubber bracelets which will likely soon become hot-ticket and heavily marketed items.

It used to be that a person could be said to wear her heart on her sleeve when her feelings for a new love were obvious to all. Of late, it has become more a case of sporting a cause on one's wrist. And to do so, one can sample—if not wear examples of—a full palette of color-tinted rubber circles on an arm: red (heart disease); yellow (testicular cancer); blue (arthritis); teal (cervical cancer); ; green (liver cancer); purple (Alzheimer’s disease); a rainbow braid (LGBTQI); and the almost omnipresent pink (breast cancer).

These designer accessories—the products of feel-good cause marketing campaigns—have, to date, offered individuals an outlet for their “political” self-identification. But for the future, it seems they are possibly to be restyled to also become technologically enhanced forms of “arm candy.”

In brief, some clever researchers appear to be taking  advantage of silicone's ability to absorb compounds to which it is exposed. By developing a way to measure what is captured in the silicone, they may then be able to determine what chemicals are probably entering an individual’s body and subsequently link these exposures to conditions and diseases she may later develop.

GUEST COLUMN - Journalists: Stop blaming women

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By Kelly Holloway

Emily Yoffe’s article “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” published in Slate is yet another example in a long line of highly problematic advice to women to stop dressing, talking, walking or acting in a way that makes them victims of sexual assault. Nothing that a woman does justifies sexual assault. Period. The author’s defensiveness about being painted with that brush does nothing to dissuade that reading; she is blaming women for sexual assault.

Yoffe argues that the common denominator in the cases of women being sexually assaulted by their male classmates is copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, the common denominator is assault. If, as Yoffe suggests, some of the men who perpetrate these assaults are not thinking clearly because they are drunk, then perhaps they are the ones who should not drink. They are, after all, the perpetrators.

It is despicable to suggest that the solution is to tell women to stop drinking so much to curtail sexual assault. First, sexual assault does not take place because women drink. Second, if women curtail their drinking habits there will still be sexual assault.

Best of CWHN: 
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GUEST COLUMN - My sexual education in the 1950s

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By Mary J. Breen

Reprinted from The Toast

Image from Vintage Ad Browser

Once upon a time long ago in my small Ontario town, menstrual pads were called sanitary napkins, and they came in boxes wrapped in plain brown paper lest any man see them and drop dead from embarrassment. These pads were about an inch thick—bulky, awkward things that were held in place with little twisty belts or safety pins. To be extra safe, some women even wore special rubber-lined underpants. This was long before the wonders of stick-on ultra-thin pads with wings. When revolutionary new things called tampons arrived on the drugstore shelf, I set about trying to convince my mother of their superiority based on the fact that one could hide a whole month’s-worth in a purse, but nothing I said convinced her to let me buy them. Tampons, she said–whispered actually, barely containing her disgust–were only for married women. Perhaps, like the Archbishop of Dublin who banned them in Ireland around this time, she thought tampons had the potential to be sexually stimulating. Someone should have told these people that sometimes a tampon is just a tampon.

GUEST COLUMN: Do psychotropic medications increase disability rates in Canada?

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By Rosemary Barnes and Susan Schellenberg

Advances in medicine are intended to improve life for the ill or injured. So, have advances in medicine improved life for those with mental illness? American journalist and author Robert Whitaker asks this question in relation to psychotropic medication, first introduced in the 1950s and generally described as a significant advance in care of those with mental illness. 

Consider the experiences of Susan Schellenberg, co-author of this article and of the book Committed to the Sane Asylum. A former public health nurse, Susan experienced a psychotic break in 1969 and understood that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By 1969, antipsychotic medication was the widely accepted treatment for schizophrenia, and doctors prescribed this treatment for her.

Susan wanted to be a good mother to her young children, so she took antipsychotic medication as directed for the next 10 years. During this time, she was offered no other treatment and developed increasingly severe speech difficulties and tremors that she came to understand to be adverse effects of the medication. After committing to a better life for herself, Susan found a doctor willing to help her to discontinue psychotropic medication and took up various healing activities. By the early 1980s, she was no longer taking medication and was feeling much better. She then tried to return to nursing, but was only able to achieve a mark of 11 per cent in a nursing refresher course. Could Susan’s experience point to a more general problem?  

GUEST COLUMN - Women’s health and the sum of our choices

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By Kathleen McDonnell

This year marks a double milestone in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights. 2013 is the 25thanniversary of the Supreme Court decision that repealed Canada's abortion law, as well as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. Though serious inequalities of access persist on both sides of the border, abortion is a fact of life in North America and having access to safe abortion is vital to women’s health. The battle is over. Our side won. Apparently, the news never got through to two Conservative MPs who recently called for the RCMP to investigate nearly 500 late-term abortions carried out between 2000 and 2009 as possible murders. In other words, they want the Mounties to track down women who’ve undergone the procedure and subject them to invasive, traumatic questioning, possibly resulting in criminal charges. This is a grossly heavy-handed tactic, and one that’s wildly out of-step with the public mood on the issue.

GUEST COLUMN - Being proactive about your breast health

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By Verna Hunt

Women and girls of all ages in today’s culture are stamped with the colour pink as the fantasy for the fairy princess lives they are lead to believe they should yearn for. It is like a plastic film that society puts over us at birth. Onward from birth they are made to think that nothing other than a fantasy life should ever happen to them. Never get old. Never get sick. Never be sad or mad or frightened. Women should be perfect—in pink. This is not reality. As a result women often feel that they are not “good enough” in the inevitable imperfect lives they lead, and their breasts are no exception.

Another unreality propagated by campaigns such as “the pink” is that there is a cure for every disease and that it can be discovered if the medical scientists just have enough money to discover this magic bullet cure.

Our culture does not teach coping strategies for tragedies such as someone near and dear to us or even ourselves developing a disease such as breast cancer. So, in an effort to turn our understandable emotional strife into something constructive, crusades such as the Pink Ribbon Campaign have evolved. Often they end up as a business enterprise unto themselves more interested in keeping the organization going than looking at how to serve humanity.

But what is the point of it all? Is the point to find the cure for breast cancer, or is the point to find the cause for lack of breast health? The Pink Ribbon Campaign is a distraction from what is really going on with breast health. All of the pink sound bites urge us to pitch in and find the cure like there is a missing link of knowledge, a holy grail, the one thing that will solve it all. Our society tries to commodify everything as if we all have the exact same disease. It is like assuming that we all wear the same size and style of shoes.

GUEST COLUMN - Unpacking the great mammography debate

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By Cornelia J. Baines 

Since the late 1980s people have argued heatedly about the usefulness of mammography screening, especially in women aged 40 to 49. This unceasing controversy continues. Burgeoning new research in the first decade of 2000 clearly revealed that therapy was outweighing the impact of mammography in terms of mortality reduction. But the defence of screening persists. In September 2012, the Journal of Medical Screening (JMS) issued a supplement reporting that, based on European data, screening benefits were unquestionable. I document the flaws underlying this conclusion, but these flaws are more easily understood when framed by the controversy’s history. So I outline events up to 2000 and then critique the JMS message.

Since 2000, many downsides of screening have been widely reported. Twenty-one hundred (2,100) women aged 40 to 49 must be screened every two years for 11 years to avoid one breast cancer death. Of these, 700 women endure false-positive screens leading to unnecessary diagnostic work-up and anxiety, and ten to 15 will be over-diagnosed and receive unnecessary breast cancer treatment. (Having breast cancer, I am appalled that anyone might undergo unnecessary therapy.)  Importantly, contrary to expectations, screening has not reduced subsequent incidence of advanced cancers, a prerequisite for successful screening.

The good news is that even in jurisdictions without screening programs, breast cancer death rates have declined to the same extent as observed in screened populations, with declines even in women in their 30s to whom screening is not offered. The message is clear: breast cancer treatment has radically improved over the last few decades leaving little opportunity for screening to help. And downsides to screening are incontrovertible.

GUEST COLUMN - Looking my age

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Sometimes we come across women’s health issues that are simply crying out for a response, be they from the world of research, from popular media, or from the experiences of individual women. At the CWHN we decided to create a space for that response here on our website, and to invite guest commentaries from people with health knowledge and expertise who are willing to speak out and get "To the point" about some of these issues. Watch this space for informed guest columns with a new topic every month. And let us know what you think by writing to us at cwhn@cwhn.ca.


By Abby Lippman

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