It’s International Women’s Day today! Marked every 8th March, the day is a symbol of how far women have progressed in closing the gender gap and thrived in the face of discrimination and inequality. While the day is one of celebration of women’s successes and progress, it is also the time to shine a spotlight on what still needs to be done.
One major concern for women worldwide is also one that is not talked about enough – reproductive health and fertility.
To be clear, fertility issues can be incredibly stressful and emotionally taxing for anyone regardless of their gender. However, for women in particular, discussions around fertility can have added layers of complexity.
Women are often told that they need to start thinking about having children in their twenties or early thirties if they want to have a good chance of conceiving naturally. This can create a lot of anxiety and stress for women who feel like they’re running out of time. While women’s fertility does decline as they get older, with the chances of getting pregnant decreasing significantly after the age of 35, the stigma and shame associated with infertility tends to disproportionately affect women.
With its theme of #EmbraceEquity, one of the missions for this year’s International Women’s Day is to empower women to make informed decisions about their health. In that spirit, here are some ways women arm themselves with the knowledge they need to advocate for their fertility and well-being.
Knowledge is power
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of trying, or six months for women over 35. This can be caused by a number of things including hormonal imbalances, genetic disorders, and structural issues with the reproductive system. Due to the variety of factors involved, one way of taking control of your reproductive health is to learn about how your own body works — and the status it’s currently at.
This is where regular health screenings come in. Aside from allowing medical professionals to detect life-threatening conditions early on, consistent check-ups can help you understand what feels normal for your body and give you the chance to stay updated with the latest medical information.
Timely health check-ups can also reveal potential issues that one may not have even thought of in the first place. “For instance, a simple blood test can determine a woman’s ovarian reserve, which refers to the number and quality of eggs she has remaining,” explains Dr Khairun Marina binti Bachok, Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, Fertility Specialist of TMC Fertility. “In some cases, a woman can have regular periods without ovulating, so it can be hard to tell if there are possible fertility issues without proper screening methods.”
For women concerned about their fertility, health screenings offer a chance to uncover underlying conditions that may be affecting their reproductive systems. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) for example, is a common cause of infertility and irregular periods. While the hormonal disorder affects anywhere between 5% to 18% of women worldwide, many women are still unaware of the condition, or tend to have a delayed diagnosis.
Another condition impacting fertility is endometriosis, where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus. Despite endometriosis sufferers often having to live with severe pain and heavy bleeding during their periods, this condition also tends to go underdiagnosed or minimised.
“Sometimes there may be even milder issues, such as fibroids or blockages in the fallopian tubes. Early detection and treatment of these conditions can not only help women improve their chances of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy, but also uplift their current quality of life,” says Dr Khairun.
Consider options for the future
Given the hectic nature of modern life, the idea of unpacking long-term plans and aspirations might feel like yet another burden. When it comes to your health and ability to conceive however, a little bit of exploration on the fertility treatments can go a long way in preventing future heartache.
“For many women, knowing the reasons behind their infertility is one big part of the battle won, but what comes next?” says Dr Khairun. “Despite all the advancements made in reproductive health, there is still a lack of awareness about the options women have to manage infertility, from making minor lifestyle changes to cutting-edge medical interventions. Whatever a woman decides to choose, the important thing is that she is well-informed about what these choices are.”
Among such options is egg freezing, where a woman’s eggs are extracted, frozen, and stored for later use. While egg freezing is not a guarantee of future pregnancy, it can provide women with more options and control over their reproductive lives.
“It gives women the gift of time and peace of mind. Instead of making decisions out of fear or anxiety, methods such as egg freezing allow women the chance to think at depth about when they want to start their journey to motherhood, without sacrificing their personal or professional development,” says Dr Khairun.
Some modern fertility assessments include genetics-based testing, offering potential mothers even more information about their future children’s health. Tests such as TMC Fertility’s Fertility GeneCode and My GeneCode allow doctors to analyse parents’ risk of passing on hereditary conditions, as well as deeper insight on their own fertility challenges.
Seek professional help
As parenthood is seen as a normal stage in life, those struggling to conceive often face a difficult emotional journey, sometimes even feeling like they have “failed” at normalcy. The truth is, millions of people currently live with infertility — the World Health Organization estimates that infertility affects some 48 million couples and 186 million individuals worldwide. In Malaysia, research indicates that local infertility rates hover between 10% to 15%.
Another common misconception is that infertility mainly affects women, despite medical evidence showing otherwise. Infertility impacts both men and women almost equally and sometimes can even be the result of health conditions present in both partners. Despite this, the silence around infertility means that many aspiring mothers find themselves isolated in their emotional pain.
Here, professional medical advice and support can help alleviate some of that anxiety. Fertility counselling can not only offer women (and men) an idea of their treatment options, but also help them understand their feelings around infertility and grasp the implications of the decisions they might make, all with the guidance and support of someone who is trained to do so.
For women concerned about their fertility, perhaps the most important thing to remember this International Women’s Day is that you are not alone — and you have the power to take charge of your health.
“It is not a sign of weakness to seek help because infertility is just another medical condition, not a moral failing,” says Dr Khairun. “We don’t make judgments on those diagnosed with physical ailments like cancer, so why should infertility be seen any differently? Every woman deserves the right to access the healthcare support she needs, and be in control of her reproductive health.”