Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Love Your Body/Love Your Uterus

Say what?  Love your uterus? You'd better. We need to love our bodies, inside and out.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival sponsored by the NOW Foundation.  The focus of this campaign is fighting self-hatred because we’re too fat, too old, too flat, too wrinkled, too unfashionable. But we need to look inside our bodies as well and love the "sacred" organs, as one enlightened doctor described them, that make us female.

The fact is that there is an ongoing epidemic of unnecessary hysterectomies in the U.S. In no other country in the world, developed or otherwise, do one out of three women end up without their uterus by the time they are 60, a toll of about 600,000 women a year. And about half lose their healthy ovaries at the same time.

The unnecessary loss of one's sexual/reproductive organs can cause a profound loss of self-esteem tied to real physical and sexual changes that can't be fixed with a diet, cosmetic surgery, a change in attitude or replacement hormones.
For far too long, American women, including myself,  have been agreeing to let doctors cut out our organs because we didn't know the consequences and because the doctors told us we really didn't need them any more if we'd already had our babies. This attitude by doctors was born of ignorance but reinforced by sexism. Why would women past 40 need to worry about sex anyway? With replacement estrogen, after all, they could still have intercourse!

Sadly, this attitude is still prevalent, even among women gynecologists trained by a male-dominated medical establishment. Women with bleeding or pain problems too seldom learn about alternatives to hysterectomy, and even less often about the importance of our organ to our lifelong health and our view of ourselves.
I first realized this when I heard a gynecologist speaking reverently about the uterus and ovaries. He actually called them “sacred!” I had never understood that the uterus is a powerful muscle even though it has to be. That’s how women push their babies out. Nor did I understand that the uterus is central to the structural integrity of a woman’s body, like the keystone in an arch that keeps everything together.  Here’s a structural description, taken from the text of an informative video on the HERS Foundation website:
     The uterus is attached to broad bands of ligaments, bundles of nerves, and networks of arteries and veins…The severing of the ligaments (done for hysterectomy) permits the pelvic bones to move and widen, affecting the hips, lower back, and skeletal structure.
    The displacement of the pelvic bones results in compression of the spine. 
Women report that as the spine compresses, the rib cage gradually drifts down until it sits directly on the hip bones.  This compression is the reason why hysterectomized women have protruding bellies and little or no waist.
   The bladder sits in front of the uterus, and the bowel sits behind it.  The uterus separates them and helps keep the bladder in its natural position above the pubic bone and the bowel in its natural configuration behind the uterus.

Recent research shows that significant numbers of women are alarmingly ignorant about their reproductive/sex organs. A survey of 1,273 adult women this year found that 30% didn’t even know that removing the uterus would stop menstrual activity, and 13% didn’t know they couldn’t get pregnant without a uterus.

Dr. Oz Harmanli, the Springfield, Massachusetts urogynecologist who led the study, said in an interview that “younger women are almost clueless” about the functions of the uterus, cervix and ovaries. The purpose of the study, he said, was to highlight the need to give women more information so that they can make a well-informed choice about having a hysterectomy. 

Dr. Harmanli, who is director of urogynecology and pelvic surgery at Baystate Medical Center and an Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine, is refreshingly candid about the penchant of American gynecologists to cut out women’s organs. 

“I come from Turkey, been here over 20 years, trained here, started practicing here,” he told me. “When I go back to Turkey (for meetings), when I suggest hysterectomy for certain conditions, they look at me like I came from Mars.”

He continued: “The climate here created by practitioners, and by tradition in families (successive generations having hysterectomies) is that loss of the uterus has not been considered such a major loss compared to other cultures and countries.” He added that there are many complex factors behind the uniquely high rate of hysterectomies in the U.S. I believe that money is one of them: hysterectomies bring in enormous income to both doctors and hospitals; hysterectomies are the second most common women's surgery, behind only Caesarians.

Elsewhere on this blog I have described the serious health problems, shortened life span and sexual problems that result from hysterectomy and removal of the ovaries. There is simply no good medical reason why one-third of American women end up without a uterus compared to, for example, one-fifth of British women. The situation is outrageous, full of long-term implications for the general health of American women and the price women pay for health care via insurance premiums and out-of-pocket.

We’ve allowed gynecologists to define our organs as reproductive and therefore unnecessary once we’ve had all the children we want. But our organs are as central to our identity, our energy, our joy in life,  as surely as men’s testicles are to theirs.

So learn more about these vital organs. Love your uterus and your ovaries even though you can’t see them in the mirror!