Women and Health

By Emily Gold / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
In a world where perfectly healthy women end up on hormone replacement therapy and others blame themselves for getting breast cancer, one Brown professor fears a return to the nineteenth-century belief that women are inherently diseased.

"Is there another side, perhaps a dark side, to the intense scrutiny into women's health?" Lundy Braun asked a mostly female audience of Brown students and faculty, health care professionals, and community members in March. Wondering if this overzealous scrutiny might be "pathologizing women," she adds: "The idea becomes that women's bodies are time bombs."

Braun, an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine who also works in environmental studies, was one of a dozen experts from across the nation gathered for a day-long conference called Women's Health: Critical Issues, New Frontiers. Presented by the Pembroke Center Associates, the conference was dedicated to the memory of Betsy Lehman '77, a Boston Globe health columnist who died in 1994 while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

About fifty people gathered to discuss, among other things, the participation of men in taking care of women's health. "We have to stop creating environments where [men] are not welcome and not respected," asserted Helen Rodriguez-Trias, co-director of the Pacific Institute for Women's Health.

The experts agreed that a number of health issues are of particular concern to women, however. Depression, for example, afflicts women at twice the rate of men. "A lot of women feel that it's their lot in life," said primary-care doctor Alicia Monroe '73, explaining why many are unwilling to take antidepressants. To illustrate the point, she talked about one patient with job difficulties, a controlling mother, and an annoying red rash on her face. "Sure I'm depressed," the patient told Monroe, "but my problems in life, pills won't fix."

Women who are suffering need to hear from other patients, said Hester Hill Schnipper, dispensing advice she learned during her own battle with breast cancer. "First laugh a lot," she told the audience. "Learn how to live, and you will know how to die. Learn how to die, and you will know how to live."

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May / June 1999