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The Essence of You: Your Guide to Gynecologic Health

The Essence of You: Your Guide to Gynecologic Health

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The Essence of You: Your Guide to Gynecologic Health

386 pages
5 hours
Aug 24, 2017


This is the medical book every woman will want to own. Within these pages, Denise Howard, MD, brings to a wider audience the same knowledge and advice she consistently delivers to her many grateful patients. From puberty to menopause and beyond, “Dr. Denise” takes readers through the many developmental stages of a woman’s growth. Her warm conversational tone, a hallmark of her practice style, is engaging and reassuring as she presents, in precise yet easy to understand language, the many physical changes and health issues a woman may experience during her lifetime. You will want to share this book with your loved ones and keep your own copy handy for reference. “I believe the best way I can bring value to those I serve is by passing on what I know to as many people who are willing to receive it.” Denise Howard, MD
Aug 24, 2017

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The Essence of You - Denise Howard, MD


Essence of You

Your Guide to Gynecologic Health

Denise Howard, MD

Copyright © 2017 Denise Howard, MD.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted by any means—whether auditory, graphic, mechanical, or electronic—without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts used in critical articles and reviews. Unauthorized reproduction of any part of this work is illegal and is punishable by law.

The information, ideas, and suggestions in this book are not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. Before following any suggestions contained in this book, you should consult your personal physician. Neither the author nor the publisher shall be liable or responsible for any loss or damage allegedly arising as a consequence of your use or application of any information or suggestions in this book.

Publisher Name: WAT-AGE Publishing

Legal Name: WAT-AGE Publishing LLC


Softcover ISBN: 978-0-9906343-5-5

eBook ISBN: 978-0-9906343-6-2

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Thinkstock are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only.

Certain stock imagery © Thinkstock.

Lulu Publishing Services rev. date: 07/27/2017

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 Uniquely You: Anatomy and Function

Chapter 2 The Adolescent Years: The Awakening

Chapter 3 Young Adulthood: The Genesis

Chapter 4 The Reproductive Years: The Advent

Chapter 5 Preventing and Achieving Pregnancy

Chapter 6 Perimenopause: The Transition

Chapter 7 Menopause & Beyond: A New You

Chapter 8 The Things You Can Do Something About!

Chapter 9 Cancer: It Can Be Prevented or Beaten!

Chapter 10 Pelvic Floor Problems

Chapter 11 Other Health Challenges




About the Author


I’d like to express my gratitude to all the women I have cared for over the years: you have helped me be a better physician. This book is dedicated to you.


When I was 12 years old, I discovered a blood stain in the lining of my panties. I was terrified. I grew up in a traditional working class southern family which meant that no one talked about private topics; as a result, I was quite the naïve adolescent. I wiped my vaginal area clean and prayed it would go away.

A short time later, when I went back to the bathroom to find that the bleeding had continued, I thought I was going to die of cancer. I worried about how I would tell my mother.

It took an hour to get up the nerve to speak to her. I remember she was deeply involved in her ironing and didn’t immediately notice my tentative approach. I finally found the courage to speak, and I don’t remember the words I used, but do remember stuttering because I was so scared. She didn’t say anything, but instead turned and rummaged through a dresser drawer to retrieve a small booklet. She handed it to me and told me to read it. That was how I learned about the miracle of life. I was having my first period!

This experience wasn’t the galvanizing event that made me decide to become a physician, but it did sensitize me to the importance of women and girls understanding their bodies. When I was a teenager I decided to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and never wavered from that decision. It was an appealing specialty for a variety of reasons; the main driver was the chance to be a primary health provider for women. Looking back, I am amazed that the decision I made based on reviewing various medical specialties in an encyclopedia are still valid after practicing for nearly 20 years.

The path to becoming a physician isn’t an easy one, and this was especially true for me, an African American woman from a family with very limited resources. I worked hard and was fortunate to attend a state university. Later I was accepted into one of the top medical schools in the country, where I trained with some of the best physicians in America. Their influence, along with my humble upbringing, has helped me to be especially empathetic to the needs and perspective of my patients.

I have practiced medicine in the United States and internationally, and have taken care of women from a wide variety of economic, educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Taking into consideration each woman’s individual circumstance, I have consistently been struck by one thing: they all knew much less about their bodies and health than I would expect.

Limited understanding of health issues can significantly affect a woman’s continued good health, as well as place her at the mercy of less-than-competent providers or an indifferent health care system. I continue to try to educate my patients about their health, bodies, and treatment options, but it is impossible to teach them everything they need to know in a short office visit. In addition, my influence has been limited to the women who visit me, and I want to reach so many more women and girls. That was my inspiration for writing this book, something that could be handed from one woman to another—and even from one generation to the next—that would educate women and girls about the health issues they may face over the course of their lives.

People who have a certain degree of health literacy make better health care decisions for themselves and their family. It is expected that physicians should play the role of educator as well as health care provider, but the reality is that, at present, comprehensive health education by physicians is an impossible expectation. Even physicians with the best intentions are trapped between trying to take care of as many patients as possible, generating enough revenue to cover their business expenses, and spending time with their families. Health care providers can’t be solely responsible for their patients’ health. Individuals must take responsibility for their own health and the health of their families. This process starts with health literacy.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information to make appropriate health decisions. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy most people are at the basic or intermediate health literacy level. Only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy and 14 percent are below the basic level.¹ I certainly have witnessed this in the thousands and thousands of women I have cared for over the years.

Understanding health information gives people the skills to better navigate the health care system, helps them to take better care of themselves and their families, and aides them in making truly informed decisions when it comes to selecting treatment options. The objective of this book is to help improve every woman’s health literacy by providing fundamental information that they can refer to over the years as health issues arise.

I have been blessed over my lifetime with so many opportunities to learn and grow. As a woman and a physician, the best way I can give back is to try to impart what I have learned to as many people as possible. I have designed this book to share my knowledge about routine gynecologic and women’s health issues in a manner that is useful to women and girls. To make the book easier to navigate and understand, I decided to organize it by reproductive phase, with each section describing specific issues that may occur during this time. Each section is introduced with a personal story to emphasize the relevance of the condition under discussion. The names and stories do not refer to specific individuals but represent various interactions I have had with women over the years. A woman can read the sections that are relevant to her phase and/or condition, or the entire text as an overview. Use the book as a reference and share it with others.

Knowledge is indeed power, but when it comes to health, women have allowed others to be in control for far too long. In this current political climate, where restricting health access for women is acceptable in many circles, women need all the power they can get to take control of their health and that of their families. Women tend to make the health care decisions for their families. When women are better informed, their families are better off. This means that improving women’s health is also in every man’s best interest. This starts with increasing the health literacy for every woman, girl, and man. What you will read in The Essence of You is the first step to understanding your body and taking control of your health destiny.

Chapter 1

Uniquely You: Anatomy and Function

The human body truly is a masterpiece. The female form is phenomenal! Over the centuries, the female body has been exalted in art, music, and literature. From Indian nude bronzes of 2000 BC to the Aphrodite of fourth-century Greece, every culture has praised the female form. Even though the popular standards of beauty have changed over time, the celebration of the female body continues unabated.

The ability to conceive, bear, and nourish life distinguishes the female sex. To consider all the processes that must occur correctly to achieve this one goal is quite mind-boggling. Many of us take it for granted and do not give the proper respect to the complex, fragile gift that we have been given: LIFE! And even though some women choose not to reproduce, it is this potential that makes woman unique. To truly understand the gynecologic issues most women will face, we must start from this perspective; we must understand the reproductive process.

The first step to understanding gynecologic and other health problems is learning the names and the function of the female anatomy. Hopefully, with this knowledge, you will develop an appreciation and reverence for what is truly the essence of you. The ovaries, uterus, breast, vagina, fallopian tubes, and vulva are all the parts that make us different from men. Each serves a function and plays a role in the reproductive process. Each is susceptible to malfunction, malformation, dysfunction, and disease.

Every woman’s body is beautiful and distinctive. Her breasts may be small or large, her hips narrow or wide, her waist slender or full. No matter what, you should celebrate your gift and never be ashamed. Take a mirror and examine every part of you, including your genital area. Never let anyone make you think it is ugly or unattractive. Get to know your body just as you know yourself. Treat it like the temple that it is. Most importantly, if you know yourself intimately you will be able to detect the early indications that something isn’t right.

This chapter may be technically challenging to get through in one read, but the intent is for you to refer to it time and time again as you read through the whole book. I will also use medically correct terms to ensure a common language in discussing gynecologic health. This information is foundational and necessary to understanding the many health issues we will discuss in upcoming chapters. In addition, being able to use the correct terminology is important when communicating with your healthcare provider. I suggest that you review this chapter initially and then come back to it again if you read something in another chapter that is unclear.


The Organs

The ovaries are often the least discussed reproductive organs. They are, however, responsible for the most vital function that makes us distinctly woman. We give them little thought and don’t appreciate their value until they are not functioning properly.

These twin organs are located in the pelvis, attached to the pelvic sidewall and uterus via structures called ligaments. Ovaries tend to be approximately 3 to 5 cm in diameter. They produce an egg once a month, typically taking turns making a single egg. It is unusual for both to release an egg in the same month, but if they do and the eggs are fertilized, the result is a set of fraternal twins.

In addition to producing eggs capable of being fertilized, the ovaries also produce hormones. These hormones are responsible for ovulation and sustaining an early pregnancy if conception occurs. The hormones produced include estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These hormones also contribute to emotional balance, daily energy, sexual desire, a regular sleep cycle, and probably many more functions that make us feel healthy and normal.

The uterus, or womb, is the organ where a fetus grows during pregnancy. The term womb is often used to invoke feelings of warmth and safety because this is how we imagine the fetus feels for the nine months it spends in the uterus developing. Of all the female organs, it is the one that has always been recognized as the site where the miracle of life occurs. This simple organ is emblematic of total security, complete acceptance, and unconditional love. It is no wonder it is the most hallowed of all our female organs.

The uterus is a muscular organ comprised of two parts: the main body—called the corpus—and the cervix. The cervix is the vaginal portion of the uterus and is the gateway to the womb. It’s the part that stays closed to retain a growing pregnancy and, at the time of labor, gradually dilates to allow delivery of the fetus through the vagina.

The 6- to 8-centimeter-long corpus is made up predominantly of smooth muscle, but its cavity is lined with endometrial tissue that proliferates during the cycle and sheds at the time of menstruation. This lining, called the endometrium, has two layers: the functional layer that grows or proliferates to prepare for implantation of the fertilized egg (this is the layer that sheds if pregnancy does not occur) and the basal layer, which provides the base for regeneration of the functional layer when the cycle repeats itself in the absence of pregnancy. That is, it’s the part that grows the blood-laden tissue that will shed off during menstruation. The outer portion of the uterus is covered with a membrane called the peritoneum and is called the serosal layer. Imagine an avocado sliced in half. The inner portion where the seed sits is the endometrium, the fleshy part that we eat is the myometrium, and the skin is the serosal layer.

The uterus sits between the bladder, located anteriorly (toward the front of the body), and the rectum (bowel), located posteriorly (toward the back of the body). The exact position varies from person to person. For some women, the uterus sits anteriorly and flexes toward the anterior abdomen; this is known as anteverted or anteflexed. In others, it sits more posteriorly and can literally lie on the rectum. This is called retroverted or retroflexed. In some women, it sits midway between the bladder and the rectum. Where and how it sits is irrelevant, just like the shape and tilt of the nose, though sometimes it can create a challenge for a gynecologist when trying to visualize the cervix during a pelvic examination. (Many times, I have had to get on my knees for a better view or ask my patient to grab her knees and pull them to her chest to move the cervix into view.) You shouldn’t worry about this as it typically has no impact on your health.

The fallopian tubes are tubular structures that branch off the uterus at its dome and end in approximation to each ovary. The term adnexae refers to both the tube and ovary. They are approximately seven to 12 centimeters in length and have three portions: the isthmus, the ampulla, and the fimbria. The function of the tubes is to pick up the egg released by the ovary, provide a site for fertilization, and then nourish the fertilized egg and transport it to the uterus.

The vagina is a word many people are reluctant to utter. It is even a term that leads to blockage of certain internet sites when typed into a search engine. Rather than using the correct anatomical term, women prefer to give it intimate nicknames like ‘kitty’, ‘vajayjay’, ‘pupusa’, ‘vaginald’, ‘pumpum’ and many others. Vagina is the proper anatomical name for this part of the female body and you should not be embarrassed to use this term. No matter how you chose to refer to it, please appreciate it as one element that makes you uniquely woman.

The vaginal orifice is the opening to the vagina, the site of copulation. The vagina, also known as the birth canal, is a fibromuscular tube that attaches to the pelvic sidewall. It receives lubrication from fluid secreted from the cervix and Bartholin’s gland. The epithelium is colonized with a mixture of bacteria that maintains a neutral pH balance. Vaginas accommodate the penis during intercourse and hold the semen, providing time for the sperm to travel through the cervix. It is the passage through which the fetus travels during delivery, once the cervix is completely dilated.


The vulva—from the Latin, meaning wrapper or covering—consists of the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and the vaginal and urethral orifices. The mons pubis is the hair-bearing region over the pubic bone. The labia majora is the hair-covered skin fold on either side of the labia minora. It is like the leaves of a flower, while the labia minora, a thinner fold of hairless tissue that lies between the labia majora and the vaginal opening, is akin to its petals. These structures are sometimes described as the outer and inner vaginal lips.

The clitoris is the female equivalent of the penis in that it is a highly sensitive, nerve-filled erectile structure. This is the center of orgasmic activity for most women. It is also one of the lesser understood organs of the female anatomy, though an important one for a variety of reasons, both physical and psychological.


The breasts are the female organs that distinctly identify woman. They tend to be the focus of much attention and some women invest great effort in ensuring their attributes are perfectly emphasized. And like the vagina, they are also treated familiarly, given nicknames like ‘boobs’, ‘the girls’, ‘tits’, ‘puppies’, ‘my friends’, ‘knockers’ and many more. They are probably the most celebrated organs of the female body but no matter the shape or size, the function is the same.

Breasts are paired mammary organs that function to produce milk and transport it to a suckling infant. They are composed of fibrous and fat tissue that surrounds 15 to 20 lobes of glands. The lobes form a circle around the nipple and communicate with the nipple via ducts that allow the passage of milk. The areola is the darker, thicker, more wrinkled skin that extends 1 to 2 centimeters out from the nipples onto the skin of the breast. The areolar and nipples are designed to fit into the mouth of a suckling infant, facilitating milk let-down.


Communicating Chemicals: The Hormones

Hormones are substances that are secreted by one organ that travels in the blood stream to another organ, telling that particular organ to perform a specific action. Hormones and other substances called neurotransmitters are a mechanism for communication. There are certain hormones that play a specific role in reproductive processes.

The expression, raging hormones isn’t a joke. This describes exactly how some women feel a week or two before menstruation or during the transition to menopause. Fluctuating hormone levels contribute to the runner’s high and the postpartum lows. Our mood and mental outlook can be seriously affected by hormone levels, which can cause mood swings, depression, low energy, and even angry outbursts. Not every woman is affected in the same manner and many don’t notice the changes in the hormonal levels during the ovulatory cycle but for those seriously impacted, help is available. But what are they exactly?

Estrogens are hormones that are produced by the ovary. They are also produced in other tissue. There are three major types: estrone, estradiol, and estriol. Estradiol is the major product of ovarian production. All three are produced at even higher rates during pregnancy.

Estrogen stimulates the uterine lining to grow or proliferate in preparation for implantation of a fertilized egg. The site on the ovary where the egg is released is called the corpus luteum. It continues to produce estrogen in greater amounts after ovulation.

Progesterone is produced by the corpus luteum as well. The amount produced is less than 1 milligram per day prior to ovulation but after ovulation it increases ten-fold. Continued secretion sustains the endometrium, thereby supporting continued development of a pregnancy. It is produced in even higher doses by the placenta which takes over complete production of progesterone by 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is secreted in the region of the brain called the pituitary gland and travels to the ovary where it exerts its effects. It stimulates growth of the ovarian follicles. This occurs at the beginning of the menstrual cycle.

Luteinizing hormone (LH) is secreted in the region of the brain called the pituitary gland and travels to the ovary where it exerts its effects. Its sudden release causes the expulsion of an egg from the dominant follicle. This is called ovulation.

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) is released in the brain in a region called the hypothalamus. It controls release of the gonadotropins, FSH and LH. GnRH is secreted in a pulsatile fashion which in turn regulates the production and secretion of those gonadotropins.

Oxytocin is produced in the region of the brain called the hypothalamus. It causes contraction of the uterine muscles, which results in labor. It also leads to contraction of breast duct cells and subsequent milk let down. Its release is triggered by nipple stimulation which typically occurs with suckling.

Prolactin is formed in the region of the brain called the pituitary gland. It instructs the breast to make milk. Breast stimulation by the suckling infant leads to increased levels of prolactin, resulting in continued milk production by the breast.

Putting It All Together: What Makes a Woman a Woman

There are three reproductive related functions that are unique to the female: menstruation, gestation and lactation. In addition, there is a reproductive-related event that has a dramatic effect on the longevity and quality of a woman’s life: menopause. Understanding these normal events is the key to understanding the problems that can arise during different stages of a woman’s life.

Menstruation: Is it a blessing or a curse? For many women, the monthly appearance of this crimson wave is reassurance that they are not pregnant. For others, it is reassurance that they are still able to get pregnant. Some women see it as a monthly nuisance and others view it as a disrupting, painful, unwelcome event. In this day and age, it doesn’t have to be either. Medical advances have made it possible to avoid the physical and emotional distress that it brings until pregnancy is desired. But before you manipulate it, you should understand it.

What causes the monthly menstruation?

Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the endometrium when pregnancy does not occur. The first day of bleeding represents Day 1 of the cycle. There are two phases of the endometrial cycle: proliferative and secretory.

The proliferative phase is associated with ovarian follicle growth and the increased secretion of estrogen. Estrogen causes the functional layer of the endometrium to regrow.

The secretory phase starts after ovulation has occurred. Estrogen and progesterone act on the endometrium to stabilize it in preparation for implantation if fertilization occurs. This happens around 7 days post ovulation.

If implantation does not occur, the corpus luteum (cystic structure on ovary that appears at the site of ovulation) will involute leading to a drop in the production of estrogen and progesterone. The endometrium starts to shed resulting in menstruation. This typically occurs around day 28. The cessation of menses is a complex process. The return of estrogen production by the new developing follicles in the ovary is a major factor.

How does pregnancy occur?

Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) tells the ovaries to begin follicle development. Many follicles compete to be the one. Estrogen levels increase. A sudden increase in luteinizing hormone leads to the release of one egg (and sometimes two). This is called ovulation. The site of the released egg becomes the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum secretes estrogen and progesterone.

Imagine that each month, out of the hundreds of thousands of dormant eggs in the ovary, only one is released, that one has a low probability of being fertilized, and that fertilized egg has a low

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