We women deal with a lot of health issues. Three thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, our biggest problem was finding the Red Tent without getting our luggage lost by errant camels. But today, it’s overwhelming.
As a child, I had little awareness of health. Mom taught me to wash my hands well and never to sit on public toilet seats. We had dessert every night, which was part of being an Eliscu, and its nutritional merit was never mentioned. If you cleaned your plate, you got dessert. My grandmother smoked, but that was before we knew it was bad, so it didn’t count. Back then, women focused on diet not for health, but to fit into a size 8. We thought heart attacks only happened to men. I long for those days of ignorance, when a woman’s biggest concern was the price of chuck and the word “cancer” was never spoken, only whispered.
In my 20’s and 30s, I grew more aware of female health by popping out babies while fully awake, promising to breastfeed my kids until they were old enough to run a 5K, and joining a food co-op. I completed nursing school, and with memories of microbiology lab still fresh, began walking the fuzzy line between health awareness and anxiety. When my kids were sick, I’d panic, call the doctor, and revisit panic until they were well. Then I started hearing about “stress.” Just what I needed. The very mention of the word made me feel strung out. But I got through it, and returned to the important stuff of life, like ice cream. I rationalized that I was honoring my upbringing: In meaningful pilgrimages to Friendly’s, I shared my rich heritage with my little girls.
By the time I hit my 40s, the TV was flooding us with health tidbits du jour. Headlines screamed cancer, heart disease in women, obesity, fertility, infertility, nutrition, STDs, depression, microwave radiations, sunscreen, and on and on, most always with conflicting risk factors. Sometimes Mom called me to discuss these medical findings, as if I actually knew something. For me, being a nurse had no bearing on any rational thought when it came to health worries.
“I don’t have any idea,” I’d say. Then we’d make a date for lunch. That was our favorite part of the conversation, and having fun over chicken salad seemed to be the best way to approach our concerns.
I was in my late 40s when electronic media really took hold. Like the rest of the world, I learned how to use the computer and watched the onslaught of TV ads for every pharmaceutical preparation under the blazing sun. In my increasingly worried mind, I felt like the walking health equivalent of the Weather Channel. Gone were the carefree, wonderful days of red meat and no regular exercise. Vitamin D levels? Food recalls? Caffeine, vaccines, hand sanitizers? Now I could look it up, each topic with its myriad online resources. (I pause here for a moment of truth. I will never, ever look up anything related to caffeine. No one is going to take that away from me. Let my gravestone someday read: “She died, happily, from coffee.”)
One day, in the middle of this barrage of conflicting literature, I looked in the mirror and realized I’d gained weight over the years. Like 30 pounds. I’m lying. 40. Yeah. I’m still lying, but let’s move along. Once thought normal in middle age, extra weight had become a risk factor for heart disease and cancer. Guess I should have dropped those extra 1,000 calories a day needed for milk production when I stopped breastfeeding – decades ago.
Now, in my 50s, everyone’s talking about perimenopause. I have only two words to say about that: Shut up. Not that I’m sensitive, or hot as the blazes or anything, but jeez, can someone please just open a window and leave me alone for a minute?
We have choices in our health focus. The TV ad stressing that “break-through” toilet paper is a critical issue is all very interesting, but it’s low on the list of women’s health issues when we’re trying to stomp out breast cancer.
All this aside, it got me thinking, and I made a conscious decision to take care of myself as best I could and put concerns in perspective so as not to miss out on living life fully.
And then one day, someone whom I love with all my heart started having weird symptoms. And I realized something: For me, the most important health issue is not cramps at 13 or hot flashes at 50. The issues I care most about are those that affect the health of someone I love. And that is what becomes my biggest concern.
Kathy Eliscu is a nurse and freelance writer who lives in Westbrook. She credits her way of looking at the light side of life to her mother, the late Marge Eliscu, whose “Coffee Break” humor column ran for two decades in the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Kathy Eliscu is a nurse and freelance writer who lives in Westbrook. She credits her way of looking at the light side of life to her mother, the late Marge Eliscu, whose “Coffee Break” humor column ran for two decades in the Maine Sunday Telegram