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March is Women's History Month when we usually recognize and celebrate women who have left a significant legacy or paved the way for others. Let's also acknowledge the importance of women's health during this time, being both proud of the strides we've made, and fiercely committed to doing more.

Gone are the days when a diagnosis of breast cancer was a death sentence or medical research was only done on men. Remarkably, this year a documentary on a subject that was once taboo, menstruation, received an Academy Award.

Advancements in screening and diagnostic tools, individualized treatment plans, better education, and women's own persistent health advocacy have improved women’s health. These collective efforts have resulted in a decrease in lung cancer deaths among women, a focus on specific health issues facing women of color and the LGBTQ community, a decrease in teen pregnancy and a longer life span for women (although the U.S. still lags behind many European and Asian countries in this area).

Despite these efforts, women still face unrelenting health issues needing immediate and close attention by themselves, medical providers and the larger health care system. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control reports that the maternal mortality ratio in the United States increased by more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2014. Part of this alarming trend in maternal deaths can be attributed to a lack of proper health care before and after birth.

While the American Heart Association’s Red Dress-Go Red for Women campaign has alerted the public and health providers of the prevalence of heart disease in women, heart disease continues to be the No. 1 killer of women.

Many are unaware the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke in women can be much different than those in men, delaying early detection and treatment, and that African-American women are disproportionately affected by heart disease and stroke. The devastating disease of Alzheimer’s hits women twice — they not only make up two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s, they also make up the majority of those taking care of others with the disease.

Chronic diseases that account for the majority of what we spend on health care impact women and men differently. Not only are women more likely to have a chronic disease than men, diseases like diabetes can manifest itself differently in women than in men.

From prevention to treatment, we need to understand the influences of gender and sex so we can better help women and men manage their disease. Our understanding and management of gynecological issues that are not often widely discussed must improve. Conditions such as uterine fibroids, which unfortunately are very common, and endometriosis can have a profound and detrimental impact on a woman’s quality of life and ability to become pregnant and have a healthy birth.

My own recent life-changing diagnosis of breast cancer has made me appreciate the wonderful care that is available, as well as realize that so much more needs to be done. For instance, our local community cancer center with its breast health navigator has been incredibly helpful. On the other hand, while the type of cancer I have is not uncommon, it does not usually show up in mammograms — a fact that many women I talk to do not realize, thinking getting a mammogram may be enough to screen for breast cancer.

As part of this month's focus on the contributions of women, let's expand the conversation to include women’s current and future health. Let's ask questions, educate ourselves and each other. Let’s learn from helpful organizations, such as the We Can Wear White Project that educates women on uterine fibroids. Let’s enroll in the Illinois Women’s Health Registry so we include more women in medical research studies to improve our health throughout the state. Let’s support the medical professionals making a difference. Let’s do this as part of our history month, so that our future is healthier than our past.

Jennifer Sedbrook is director of development for the Mennonite College of Nursing at Illinois State University and co-founder of OSF HealthCare’s Women Empowered women’s health initiative.   

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