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Women should learn more about their unique medical challenges

Thursday - 5/8/2014, 8:13am  ET

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Women need to be sure not to delay in seeing the doctor, and to stand up for themselves when they do. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- National Women's Health Week is from May 11 through May 17 and surgeon and patient advocate Dr. Peter Edelstein says women face many unique medical challenges.

First off, women often balk at getting themselves checked out by a doctor, since they often have so many family responsibilities.

"Women are not just juggling careers; they're often at the center of the family wheel, if you will," Edelstein says. So it's easy to think that there are more important things to do than have a doctor look at a symptom.

But it's critical to go to the doctor when people notice a new symptom, or a change in something they've already got.

"Waiting doesn't help."

And when patients in the doctor's office, it's important to speak up about concerns. Men and women have this problem, Edelstein says, but among women, "and particularly older women, it's very common ... to never challenge their doctor, or, if something's not clear, they just quietly accept it. Or if what the doctor is recommending doesn't sit right with you, you don't say anything."

"This is your health; you need to own your health. ... Ask questions; make sure before you leave, you understand the plan and you agree with it."

Great strides have been made against breast cancer in recent decades, both in the lab and among the general population, but Edelstein says there's an unintended consequence to all the focus on the disease.

"It's wonderful that women now recognize the importance of regular breast exams and mammograms, but an interesting side effect is that many women may believe that breast cancer is the only major threat to their health," Edelstein says.

Too many women don't realize, Edelstein says, that heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. And women also need to know that men and women experience heart attacks differently.

The popular image of a heart attack -- the dramatic clutching of the chest and the feeling that a ton of bricks has dropped on you, Edelstein says -- is a male thing.

"Women often have much milder symptoms, or very differnt symptoms," Edelstein says. For them, a heart attack can take the form of jaw, shoulder or abdominal pain; they can feel nauseous and get sweaty or weak.

And there are many forms of cancer with whim to concern themselves. Colon and rectal cancer is the third-leading cancer killer among women, so women need colonoscopies starting at age 50, just like men.

Of course, women who smoke are at a great risk for breast cancer, Edelstein says - - more reason than ever to quit.

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