"Time Of The Month" Myths

tampons, pads and flower

feminine hygiene – beauty treatment

Women deal with periods for such a significant part of their lives that you’d think they’d be experts on the subject, right? Wrong. Even after years of Aunt Flo’s monthly visits, it’s still difficult to know the difference between fact and some very ubiquitous myths.

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For example, is it true that you can’t swim during your period, or that you should avoid sex? Or that you shouldn’t relax your hair? Or exercise? Are you supposed to have a period every month? Can you get pregnant during your period? And what’s a “normal” cycle?

“Many women are clueless about their menstrual cycles,” says Joyce Weckl, NSM, a certified-nurse midwife with California HealthFirst Physicians in Camarillo, Calif. “But it makes sense. How many women sit around talking about the number of pads they soak through, or exactly how long their cycle lasts for each month?”

If you’re curious about your cycle, here’s the truth behind some of the most confusing myths.

1. Skipping a period means you’re unhealthy.

Healthy women occasionally skip a month or two. That’s because hormones don’t fluctuate much in some women, says Mary Rosser, M.D., an ob-gyn with Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

“You can go up to three months without having a period, and we’re not concerned,” she says.

Doctors, however, prefer premenopausal women have periods at least every three months to make sure the uterus is shedding its lining.

Hormonal birth control – for example, injectable Depo-Provera, the IUD Mirena or the pill Seasonale – is an exception to the three-month rule because the uterine lining is controlled by hormones, so there’s often little or no build-up.

You also can stop periods with birth control pills by skipping the placebo week and starting the next pack immediately.

That safely eliminates withdrawal bleeding, Rosser says.

2. Food cravings are totally hormonal.

Does your period have you reaching for a Hershey’s bar? You’re not alone: About half of American women report craving chocolate, and about half of those say they crave it when their periods start.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, you can’t blame cravings on pre-period hormone fluctuations, according to a 2009 University of Pennsylvania study published in the journal Appetite. When comparing menstruating and post-menopausal women, the researchers found a difference of only 13% in chocolate cravings.

That means even after menopause, many women still have chocolate cravings.

3. You can’t get pregnant on your period.

You can get pregnant, but it’s rare. Pregnancy occurs when you release an egg (ovulate) and that egg is fertilized by sperm. Normally, a period happens when the egg isn’t fertilized, and you shed the lining of your uterus, along with the non-fertilized egg.

But sometimes you can menstruate without ovulation and ovulation can occur without a period. It’s even possible to release an egg during your period, says Rosser.

You could get pregnant anytime until ovulation ends (and even then, you’re not 100% safe without birth control)!

4. You shouldn’t have sex during your period.

There’s no reason to abstain from sex during menstruation, Rosser says. But use a condom during menstruation to guard against sexually transmitted diseases.

“Blood can (transmit) bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases,” Rosser warns.

And to avoid staining the sheets, “use dark-colored sheets and towels,” she says.

5. You lose a lot of blood while menstruating.

It may seem like you’re shedding quarts of menstrual blood, but it’s just 2-4 tablespoons a day for most women. Any more signals problems, like a hormonal imbalance, fibroids, polyps or problems with your uterine lining.

If you’re going through a super-absorbent pad or tampon every hour or wearing multiple products (for example, a couple of pads or a pad and a tampon), call your doctor right away. 

6. Once you start your period, you need annual Pap smears.

“Moms frequently bring their daughters in because they had their first period,” says nurse-midwife Weckl. “But starting to menstruate has nothing to do with getting Paps.”

Instead, sexual activity is the trigger for your first exam. That’s because a Pap test is designed to pick up cervical changes, usually caused by the human papillomaviruses (HPV). There are many strains of HPV and most don’t cause problems, but some can slowly grow into cervical and other gynecological cancers.

Despite some recent new recommendations regarding Pap exam frequency, most gynecologists still recommend that a woman receive a Pap smear every year after her 18th birthday, or as soon as she first becomes sexually active.

7. Pubic hair signals a young woman’s first period.

Some girls start sprouting pubic hair as young as 9 or 10, and don’t get a period until several years later, Weckl says. The best predictor of a girl’s first period is breast development. Menstrual cycles usually start about 2-3 years afterward.

8. A normal menstrual cycle is 28 days.

Actually, it varies from 21-35 days in healthy adult women. In young teens, it’s 21-45, according to Rosser.

9. Tampons are dangerous. 

It’s not the tampon, but how long you leave them in that can trigger a dangerous infection like toxic shock syndrome. It can be caused by not changing a tampon often enough.

When used correctly, tampons are safe and TSS is rare.

“I’ve been an ob-gyn for nearly 17 years and I’ve never seen a case of TSS,” Rosser says. “Of course, you should be diligent about changing your tampons.”

That means changing them at least every 4 hours during a heavy flow and no more than every 8 hours on the last, light days of your period. Another great tip is skipping tampons at night and sleeping with a pad instead.

“I also encourage patients to use non-perfumed tampons,” Rosser says.

The more chemicals you introduce into the vagina, the more likely you’ll change its natural environment and end up with an irritation, she explains.

10. You look worse during your period. 

You may feel bloated and unattractive during your period. But it’s actually prime man-hunting time. Men find you more desirable then, according to a 2006 study at Charles University in Prague. The researchers asked women to stick cotton pads in their armpits for 24 hours during different times of the month. Then men were asked to smell and rate the pads’ scent.

Men were most attracted to pads worn during the follicular phase (between the first day of menstruation and the onset of ovulation). They also thought women’s faces looked more appealing during this time.

11. If you’re still getting your period, you’re not menopausal.

You usually continue to have your period during perimenopause, the start of menopause, which can last 7-10 years, and traditionally starts in the mid-40s.

“Bleeding is only one symptom of hormonal changes,” Rosser says.

You also can experience hot flashes, vaginal dryness and other menopausal symptoms but still have your period. And some women just stop getting their periods with very little hormonal fanfare. If you wonder how menopause will affect you, talk to an older female relative. It’s genetic, so they may have clues on how you might weather it.

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Study: Breast Cancer May Be Predicted By Blood Test

Multiple vials of blood in a tray
A blood test that might be able to predict breast cancer’s spread may improve diagnosis and treatment for women with early stage breast cancer, a new study finds.

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Dr. Anthony Lucci, a professor of surgical oncology at the University of Texas, Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and his colleagues looked at 302 patients with operable breast cancer and examined them with a simple blood test.

Their previous research identified so-called circulating tumor cells in the blood of patients who had metastatic breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread. The cells are shed by tumors and are thought to cause cancer if they latch on to another area in the body.

For this study, published in the June 5 issue of Lancet Oncology, the researchers wanted to know if these circulating cells could be found in patients at an earlier stage of the disease and whether or not the presence of cells could predict disease progression.

After examining the patients with a blood test, the researchers identified circulating tumor cells in 24 percent of the study group. Further analysis revealed the presence of the cells predicted disease progression and the patient’s overall survival rate. Fifteen percent of patients who tested positive for the cells had relapsing breast cancer, while 10 percent died during the four-year-study period. That compares to 3 percent of patients who didn’t test for the cells that relapsed and 2 percent that died during the study.

“If they have them they had roughly four times the risk of either (the cancer) recurring or dying than those who don’t have the cells,” said Lucci.

For patients with a higher concentration of circulating tumor cells found in the blood – with three of the cells present – 31 percent of them died or relapsed during the study.

WebMD reports that the study might explain why about 25 percent of breast cancer patients who catch their cancer early with surgery will see it return.

Experts commenting on the study said the blood test may one day help personalize treatment for breast cancer patients.

“We are moving into a state where we’re looking at a person’s individual tumor and this is another way to do that, potentially leading to treatment,” Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay.

In an accompanying editorial in the same journal, Dr. Justin Stebbing, a professor of cancer medicine and oncology, at Imperial College, London, U.K., welcomed the findings, but cautioned more research is needed to determine how it could help patients.

Stebbing wrote, “At present we are in a difficult situation where we have a reliable prognostic biomarker but restricted guidance on how this information should be used, and therefore, until the completion of further studies, we do not envisage patients being treated differently on the basis of these data.”