By Jessica Girdwain
It’s a strange phenomenon: we fib about our behaviour to the exact people who could help steer us in a better direction.
In theory, your doctor’s office is a safe place to put it all out there: your health triumphs, your health lapses, your nagging health concerns. But many women omit details, twist facts or blatantly lie when being quizzed by anyone accessorising with a stethoscope. Big mistake. Withholding the truth can be dangerous, if not deadly. “And your doctor can’t help you if she doesn’t have all the info,” says obs-gynae and co-host of DStv’s The Doctors, Dr Jennifer Ashton. Guilty of any of these little white-gown lies? It’s time to come clean.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “How are you doing?”
YOU SAY: “All good, hey! Fine! Everything’s going great.”
THE REALITY: You’ve been feeling sad for a while.
THE FIB RISK: High. The longer you let depression symptoms linger, the more likely you are to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or to isolate yourself from friends and family. Don’t suffer in silence: “Try to say exactly what you’re thinking and experiencing, even if you don’t have the right words,” says clinical psychologist Dr Sari Shepphird. “Or, if you’re too nervous, just say that. Your doctor can take it from there.” Remember, just because you feel blue doesn’t mean you’re clinically depressed or will surely be prescribed meds (nearly 25 percent of people hide their symptoms for fear of being put on an antidepressant). Hormonal imbalances can also cause emotional upset. Give your doctor the chance to get to the root of your mood and recommend a course of action that you’re comfortable with.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “Do you smoke?”
YOU SAY: “Not really… Maybe every now and then.”
THE REALITY: You puff at least once a day, or sometimes several times a week.
THE FIB RISK: High. Okay, so you don’t feel like hearing another lecture, but just one social ciggy exposes your body to a cocktail of carcinogens. Frequent smoking raises your risk for certain cancers (lung, breast, cervical), so your doctor might want to start screening for them early or more often, says Dr Lynn Westphal, a specialist in women’s health. Smoking can also raise your blood-clot risk if you’re on the Pill, so your physician might switch you to a different contraceptive and explain how cigarettes affect fertility. Always be straight about how often you light up, and your doctor can work with you to devise a solid quitting plan. It’s well worth any shame: women who stop smoking cut their premature death rate by more than half.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “What’s new in your life?”
YOU SAY: “Ag, nothing much. Same old, same old.”
THE REALITY: You were recently retrenched or passed over for a big promotion, or you’re just working around the clock.
THE FIB RISK: Moderate. Because the average working woman spends a third of her time at work, her job health has a direct effect on her medical health. A little professional stress is totally normal; an upheaval at (or exit from) the office, however, is something your doctor needs to know about. “Many people don’t know that work-related stress is the root cause of a lot of health problems,” says Shepphird. For example, unemployment has been linked to heart disease, and extreme stress can make you 69 percent more likely to misuse contraceptives, leaving you vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies or STIs. When your physician asks “What’s new?” touch on what’s happening at work – “They’re restructuring our division and I’m stressed out.” She can decide what’s relevant.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “How much do you drink?”
YOU SAY: “About two glasses of wine – and only on weekends.”
THE REALITY: Well… and some shots at a handful of happy hours each week.
THE FIB RISK: High. Most women grossly understate how much they imbibe, often more than even they realise. “Thanks to oversized glasses and generous pours, two drinks may really contain the alcohol equivalent of four drinks,” says Ashton. “And four drinks in one night can be considered binge drinking.” Regularly guzzling more than seven drinks a week can lead to sleep disruption, weight gain or even breast cancer, so it’s imperative to do the maths. Don’t fall back on the vague “socially” answer or downplay your boozing for fear of being tsk-tsked; use your calendar as a guide and fill your doctor in so she can check you for booze-related issues.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “Is your knee still bothering you?”
YOU SAY: “Nah, it’s alright. I just take an OTC tablet when it acts up.”
THE REALITY: You’re popping them like sweets just so you can get through your workouts.
THE FIB RISK: Moderate. Overuse of pain pills can cause stomach irritation or ulcers. Perhaps more important, though, is that the meds may be masking a worsening problem (that knee pain, for example, could morph into a stress fracture), says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Sabrina Strickland. Women often lie about how much they exercise when injured, she says, for fear of being told they can’t hit the gym. But it’s important to describe your precise fitness routine and type of pain. Yes, being upfront may result in some physical therapy, but it beats stomach trauma or eventual surgery – two things your doc wants to help you avoid.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “What medicines are you taking?”
YOU SAY: “Nothing.” Or: “Just the Pill.”
THE REALITY: You’re a supplement champ, taking vitamin D, fish oil, probiotics, and – oh ja! – St John’s wort.
THE FIB RISK: Moderate. They may be natural, but supplements can be very powerful drugs, says integrative medical expert Dr Leslie Mendoza Temple. Certain ones might interact with prescription meds – St John’s wort can interfere with contraceptives, or can be harmful in high dosage, and too much fish oil can cause skin bruising or bleeding after surgery. To make sure you don’t overlook anything, bring along the actual bottles of each supplement you’re taking to show your doc. “People sometimes fear their conventional doctors will ridicule alternative therapies,” says Temple. If yours laughs at them, find a new doctor.
YOUR DOCTOR ASKS: “How’s your sex life?”
YOU SAY: “Um… it’s okay.”
THE REALITY: Nooky kinda hurts, but only sometimes. And you’d rather chew off your arm than go into the ultra-intimate details.
THE FIB RISK: Moderate. Up to 75 percent of women experience painful sex at some point. Typically, it indicates a fixable issue (vaginal dryness, a yeast infection). In some cases, though, it can point to more serious concerns such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts, so speak up before your feet are in the stirrups. Feel free to start with, “This is awkward, but…” Keep in mind that there’s very little that can shock or embarrass a doctor. “Blood, fluids… we’ve seen and heard everything,” says Ashton.
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