Happy Valentine’s Day!
I hope you are full of hearts (as my son says). This morning we had heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and he brought a box of heart-shaped cookies for his preschool classmates. I made dozens of cakes and cupcakes and delivered them to other people’s sweeties around town. It’s a sweet day.
You know what else I love? Organizations that really advocate for women’s health. They deserve your love. They work hard on tiny budgets trying to do things like change Medicare eligibility and revise FDA guidelines for Plan B.
So this Valentine’s day, check out these fantastic organizations. Send them your money, forward the links to your friends, donate your time, subscribe to their mailing lists:
1. Breast Cancer Action. “The Bad Girls of Breast Cancer Activism.” They focus on environmental causes of cancer, refuse to be wooed by the empty promises of the pink ribbon, and create some really thought-provoking materials.
2. RH Reality Check. For when you want a dose of reality with your news about reproductive health.
3. National Women’s Health Network This one’s been around since the 70s and you don’t hear about them enough. They are always working on policy initiatives, and are a great resource for information about women’s health in general.
4. Big Push for Midwives A fantastic grassroots organization that is working tirelessly to pressure states to pass legislation that allows midwives to be certified and practice independently throughout the country.
5. The Mautner Project. Originally focused on providing resources and services to lesbians with cancer, this organization has expanded to address a wide range of health issues and is tailored specifically to the concerns and priorities of women who partner with women.
Share the love!
I don’t read too much non-fiction these days. Right now I’m speed reading Gone Girl . It’s kinda sorta okay but makes me feel like my brain is melting. I don’t really like Gone Girl, but I can’t stop reading it. It’s kind of like my sugar addiction.
To my credit, the last time I went to the library, I checked out Far From the Tree, Buddhism for Mothers and In the House of the Interpreter. But I haven’t read them yet. This summer I read everything Jamaica Kincaid ever wrote (except this one) . She is so perfect. But I also read The Happiness Project. Please don’t let me read Jodi Picoult. If I read Jodi Picoult, it’s all over.
Anyhoo, back when I was a full-time smarty pants, I spent countless hours reading nonfiction, I read about health. Particularly women’s health. There is so much out there, and I feel lucky to have been introduced to it. So in case you’re looking for something to read that’s not a white lady novel, here we go.
Ten great books about women’s health:
1. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Dorothy Roberts is a great writer. This book will help you understand the racist undertones of much of American political discourse about reproductive health and entitlement programs.
2. How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex. Cristina Page. Best title ever
3. Cunt. Speaking of titles… okay, it’s a little crass and the language is tiny bit outdated, but Inga Muscio’s take menstruation, reproductive health and sexual freedom is still empowering
4. A Darker Ribbon. One of the most well-researched critiques of the breast cancer movement that is not preach or overly academic.
5. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control. This should be required reading for anyone working for — or wanting to work for — an international development organization.
6. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down : A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and a Collision of Two Cultures. A can’t-put-it-down kind of read written by a journalist.
7. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis on America. An ethnography of genetic counseling. A little bit on the jargony side, but still a good read.
8. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.Paul Farmer will make you want to try and save the world.
9. Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. You are what you eat. Marion Nestle.
10. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Would get the award for best title if I hadn’t already given it to Cristina Page. Paula Treichler is one of my favorite smarty-pants writers.
And one bonus book…
11. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Robbie Davis-Floyd. A classic. Read it.
What about you? What are your favorite women’s health books? What did I forget? And hey, what are you reading? I’ll forgive you if it’s Jodi Picoult.
So often, public health interventions are boring — recommend more education, evaluate an existing program, come up with a list of resources….yawn.
But although they don’t always make headlines, there are lots of fantastically innovative people working to improve women’s health. I’m always excited to see these types of projects which have the potential to do so much good.
Here are five truly different approaches to improving women’s health:
- Naturopathic Oncology. Seems like a contradiction, right? Wrong. I’ve been intrigued by efforts to initiate more natural approaches to cancer treatment ever since I researched breast cancer activism in graduate school and met the woman who started this great project. But apparently, naturopathic oncology has started to take hold in the more mainstream medical field, and the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center actually has naturopaths on staff.
- Cultivating and caring for “mad gifts”. The Icarus Project has a completely unique approach to mental health. Rather than calling it “mental illness” they “envision a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of ‘mental illness’ rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework.” So important, and so rare.
- Midwifery and fertility services for the rest of us. Not surprisingly, most prenatal care is very straight-oriented. But Maia Midwifery takes a different approach, prioritizing the needs of queer families. I love that the approach is so radically different from some of the overly granola earth-mama stuff that is part and parcel of most midwifery practices. Also in California is ReCLAIM Midwifery, which focuses on transgender health. This is true innovation, but it will probably be a very long time before this approach is incorporated into mainstream prenatal services.
- Real sex education. Rather than the lip service paid to sex education that happens in schools, Scarleteen is a resource for teenagers that provides a wide range of resources. Created in response to 1998 abstinence only policies, the site uses message boards, tweets, Tumblr feed, SMS (and Facebook and even Pinterest) to connect with its audience, and has zillions of real life questions and answers. I hope it’s still around when my four year old is a teenager.
- Telling and talking. Speaking of four year-olds, after a completely useless preschool lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. (my son learned that King “changed our world” but had absolutely no idea why or how) he told the teacher that he would like to learn about where babies come from. Awkward. We took a trip to the library afterwards, and I satisfied his curiosity with a picture book called It’s so Amazing. But this isn’t the end of these types of questions, so I’m excited about this series of books developed specifically for families with children conceived with donor assistance.
What about you? Have you heard of exciting, cutting edge programs or innovations in women’s health?
For almost two decades, breast cancer has been a very visible public health issue. Women over the age of 40 (or sometimes 50) are pressured by doctors, health advocacy organizations, friends, family and pop culture to submit to a yearly mammogram. It could save your life, we’ve been told.
We’re told not to worry about the discomfort or pain, the strangeness of having your boob squished like a pancake in a giant X-ray machine, the possibility of false positives. We’ve been reassured that the level of radiation to which we are exposed is minimal.
This insistence on yearly screening has seemed problematic to me for many years, in part because of my own observations working in the healthcare industry.
For a year, I had a job at the Family Medicine clinic at the University of Washington. My job was to check in patients, call in referrals, file their paperwork and be the friendly face they saw at the front desk.
One of the things I noticed was the number of scans that women were being asked to undertake. Full body bone density scans. Mammograms. Abdominal x-rays. Pap tests. The doctors offered (and sometimes directed) women toward an onslaught of screening tests. On the other hand, male patients were rarely sent for routine screening exams.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess that this might be an issue. After all, we have no reason to think that researchers or clinicians take women’s health more seriously than men’s health. Yet there is a history of putting women’s bodies under the microscope, of seeing them as breeding grounds for disease, of poking and prodding and monitoring.
This annoyance and irritation at the way female patients were treated by the medical field t propelled me into graduate school. Why was there such an interest in promoting mammography? What were women really getting out of it? What did the pink ribbon really mean?Do mammograms really save lives?
Turns out, the answer is no.
A new observational study published in the New England Journal of Medicine oncluded that mammograms don’t work. In his beautifully argued op-ed in the NYT yesterday, David Newman points out that although observational studies are not the gold standard, in this case the approach was strategic. The study confirms the conclusions drawn from a series of clinical trials: Mammograms might increase diagnoses and may increase treatment, but they don’t save lives. You’re just as likely to die from a breast cancer detected from a mammogram as you are from breast cancer you detect yourself.
So why do doctors and health advocates persist in pushing women to get the test?
Newman puts in this way:
[T]he trial results threatened a mammogram economy, a marketplace sustained by invasive therapies to vanquish microscopic clumps of questionable threat, and by an endless parade of procedures and pictures to investigate the falsely positive results that more than half of women endure. And inexplicably, since the publication of these trial results challenging the value of screening mammograms, hundreds of millions of public dollars have been dedicated to ensuring mammogram access, and the test has become a war cry for cancer advocacy. Why? Because experience deludes: radiologists diagnose, surgeons cut, pathologists examine, oncologists treat, and women survive.
While Newman doesn’t bring in a feminist or gendered analysis of this issue, it’s sitting right there, the pink elephant in the room. Just like the continued marketing of hormone replacement therapy, or the lack of non-invasive methods to detect cervical cancer, mammography has been accepted practice for so long because culturally, it’s perfectly fine to expect women to submit themselves to poking and prodding and examination.
What do you think? Have you had a mammogram? Will you get one (or stop getting one) after hearing about this study?
Angela Wall, PhD. is the communications director at Breast Cancer Action, the San Francisco-based advocacy group that calls itself themselves “the bad girls of breast cancer.” She’s a cultural critic, rabble rouser, mama, organizer, communications expert and feminist who’s doing important work for women’s health.
This week we had a great conversation about health activism, the use of humanities degrees, and opportunities for women working in the health non-profit sector.
What is your job? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I’m the Communications Director at Breast Cancer Action. We’re a feminist health organization that advocates to stop cancer where it starts. We’re different from other breast cancer organizations because we’re very political. We also question the dominant primarily pink paradigm of breast cancer activism through our Think Before You Pink campaign.
A big part of my job is thought leadership which includes writing, editing, and motivating. I’m always conveying the urgency of why protecting women’s health is an important issue.
BCAction has a unique brand and a powerful, fiery, passionate voice. I’m the gatekeeper of that voice, and it’s my job to make sure that all publications that go out reflect this. I talk to the press, do media outreach, set up interviews, work on the strategic aspect of campaigns and help program staff to publicize and organize their materials. I’m the go-to publicity person.
You took a bit of a winding path to get to this position, and I’d love to hear you ended up doing this work. You have a PhD – what was your experience in academia?
I have PhD in Feminist Cultural Theory (Cultural Studies), so my first inclination was to be an academic. My dissertation was on reproductive technologies and reproductive health: the whole mess of what it meant to be a woman in a world of new reproductive devices and technologies at the end of the 20th century.
After I finished my degree, I taught at Georgia Tech in the Literature, Communication and Culture program. It was a heavily male dominated environment, and I while I loved teaching and the students, I got burnt out. Being in academia wasn’t what I felt passionate about.
So after you left academia, what did you do?
Eventually, my partner and I moved to San Francisco, California where he got a job, and I worked for a small tech start-up, doing focus groups, consumer research and general marketing. At no point in my life would I ever have thought that I would end up in that role. Advertising was the belly of the beast! I worked for three years for a great company, but at the end of the day I hated the idea of working for the corporate sector, so after I had my daughter, I quit.
How did you connect with Breast Cancer Action?
Unlike many women, I didn’t get involved because of a personal experience; it was more out of a political impetus. When my daughter started preschool, I began volunteering in the BCAction office a couple days a week. I wanted a place to re-enter the working world, and a feminist non-profit that focused on women’s health seemed like a great place to do that.
A friend and I did had done a pro bono project for BCAction whilst I’d been working, using our marketing experience to perform focus groups to look into what prompted women to take action in breast cancer. We explored how women understood the word activism. This research helped shape the organization’s strategic plan. When the director of communications quit several years later, the then Executive Director asked if I would step in while they hired for the position. I began as a consultant and eventually extended to a permanent hire. I’ve been working at BCAction now for almost four years.
Did you have any training or background in health issues before you started doing this work?
As a graduate student, I was really involved in ACT UP, reproductive rights, and abortion clinic defense. As I mentioned, I also wrote a dissertation on reproductive rights. I don’t have any medical training though.
I had considered getting an MPH, but there are very few times when I actually need that medical background. I think that not being a scientist actually ends up being an asset, since part of my job is to translate science and medical language for the lay woman. So much of the work of BCAction connects the dots between all that’s said and written about breast cancer and its actionable impact on women’s lives.
Much of my educational background worked on challenging the whole construct of what counts as factual objectivity in science and pulling to the forefront the reality that science is grounded in a cultural network of language which is subject to a whole host of conventions, traditions, and biases. The idea that writings about science are somehow more objective and less biased than other kinds of writing is a false dichotomy. Scientists carry their own cultural experiences and biases into their work even if they think they don’t.
Research is persuasive because so often so much is at stake: there are funders, stakeholders, future grant dollars etc., tied up in research results. We have to put it in context and peel back layers to understand the full story and connect the dots.
This is particularly true when it comes to drug trials. So many of them are funded by pharmaceutical companies and they are not unbiased: they are not in the business of putting patients first or advocating for improved women’s health, they’re in the business making money and are held accountable to shareholders.
What are some of the things you like about your job?
One thing I really appreciate is that my day-to-day job requires that I use the critical thinking skills I acquired through my humanities education. I have to ask questions like: why is coverage of this issue in the New York Times wonky, what’s being left out and why? What’s in need of critique? Where are the gaps in the presidential debates? What’s not being said? I have to use my critical thinking skills to draw out the ways in which women are not put first when it comes to the health agenda.
There are days when I feel like I was specifically trained to do this job.
What advice would you give to women who are interested in working for a health advocacy organization?
I love being able to tell women who are trained in the humanities that there are alternative career paths out there! Teaching is not your only option. Nor do you have to go into the corporate world. You have very specific skills that a whole variety of organizations can use.
The best way to get your feet wet is to do an internship or do some volunteering. Many non-profits require self-driven, motivated people. The pace is fast and there are not a lot of resources for training, learning and professional development. Identify organizations that you are really interested in, whose work and writing lights a fire under you, follow their campaigns, blogs, Facebook, and mailings.
Ask yourself, does that sounds like something that interests you enough to do eight hours a day? You need passion to do a non-profit job—your reward does not come with your paycheck.
My experience has been that women are generous about opening doors for other women looking to follow this career path.
Thanks Angela! I’m so glad to have made this connection, and look forward to some great future collaborations.
Would you like to be profiled as part of this series or do you know someone who you think I should talk to? Drop me a line at jcmoffett at gmail dot com.
It’s been another great week!
I started a new series, profiling women in health. If you would like to be profiled or have an idea of someone you think I should talk to, please let me know.
I’ve been pitching lots of stories about women’s health to a variety of news outlets and blogs, and will hopefully have some good news to share soon.
And a confession – I didn’t watch the veep debate. I listened to part of it on the radio, but missed the visual antics. Oh well, I’ll be watching on Tuesday as the presidential candidates face off for the last time.
Here’s what caught my eye in health news this week:
- Injections in the spine never seems like a great idea, but even worse when the medication is full of fungus. Some things definitely need lots of regulatory oversight!
- In a valiant effort to take the mind-body connection seriously, two studies look at the role stress when it comes to breast cancer and maternal well being.
- Floridians are voting on whether ban state funding for abortion, in addition to the existing ban on federal funding for abortion, put in place by the Hyde Amendment. Will they also be voting on whether to increasing state funding for birth control?
- Scientists have come to a consensus that formaldehyde causes cancer. So why are lobbyists trying to keep this information under wraps?
- No one wants to go on a job interview when they’re pregnant, and lots of women are nervous to tell their employers that they are pregnant even when they already have the job. Been there.
- The UK takes a big step, and makes treatment available for HIV positive patients who need them, regardless of immigration status. Public health in action.
- 3D mammograms: twice the radiation, three times the fun?
Thanks for reading! Have a great fall weekend, and see you on Monday.
It’s been an amazing week. I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine’s website. I gave at talk about breast cancer advocacy at my local library. I tweeted with Breast Cancer Action during the presidential debates.
There’s been a lot of interesting stories in health news this week, like most weeks. Here’s my round up!
- Looks like free birth control leads to fewer abortions and fewer teen births.
- Bayer is reducing the cost of their contraceptive implants to distribute to women in poor countries. What do you think? Is this a good thing?
- California makes it illegal for psychiatrists to offer young people a cure for homosexuality. Definitely a good thing.
- The NYT Motherlode published an interesting first-person perspective on post-partum depression.
- Mitt Romney told a lot of lies about his healthcare plan during the debate.
- I like this research because it blames racial discrimination for causing health disparities instead of reporting that health disparities exist between white folks and racial minorities. The study is particularly close to my heart since it is about low-birth weight babies (my son was just under 3 pounds when he was born).
- Hobby Lobby doesn’t want it’s employees to be able to get emergency contraception, so they’re fighting tooth and nail to be allowed to ban coverage of Plan B from their health plan. I wonder if they cover Viagara?
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!