We recently had an opportunity to chat with Missy Lavender, founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit, Women’s Health Foundation (WHF) and pioneer in championing pelvic health and wellness for women of all ages. Missy founded WHF in 2004 and is its strongest advocate. Prior to that, she was an executive in the fields of investment management, investor relations and real estate banking. She has a B.A. from Miami University and an MBA from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Missy is the author of several books including “You Go Girl…But Only When You Want To!” (and the Senior Edition of the book as well). Her forthcoming books “Below Your Belt: A Girl’s Guide To Pelvic Health” and “Riding the Potty Train” will be published in 2014.
Missy began her pelvic health mission following a difficult pregnancy and delivery. Almost immediately after delivering a son in 1999, she began having problems with urinary incontinence. She was told by her doctor to practice Kegels, but it did little to help. She went on to have a second child and eventually had a reconstructive pelvic operation in 2001. While she was recovering, she began thinking about the lack of information for women about pelvic health. She founded Women’s Health Foundation in 2004 and approached Congress about the lack of research dollars for bladder disease. Over a two-year period, she interviewed urogynecologists, nurse practitioners, pelvic floor physical therapists and exercise physiologists to find ways to help women. For Missy, her goal has always been is to give power back to women and encourage them to take control of their bodies.
You started the Women’s Health Foundation after suffering through some personal pelvic health issues. Were you surprised by the lack of information and resources regarding women’s health? And how did that help shape your mission?
I was completely taken aback even the thought that at 40, I could be a pelvic health patient and at the time, could only find information that seemed to better fit my mother or grandmother. This was inspite of there being 20-30 million women like me with issues regarding bladder control or uterine prolapse. I decided that I did not want another woman to either think she was the ONLY one with things going on “below the belt” or not know where to go if she had symptoms.
Women’s Health Foundation was founded on the principles of accessible, credible, but approachable information aimed at women of all ages, but especially those going through life stages like pregnancy or menopause which can have unique pelvic health challenges associated with them.
You spent the early part of your career in investment management and real estate banking. How did your experience in the corporate world prepare you for overcoming obstacles in the medical and political communities?
The most important thing I tell women who are patients is to “keep asking until you are satisfied,” with the answers they get, with the treatment they receive, with their health and wellness. This tenacity and this motto is a direct result of both my experience as a patient and my background in sales and banking.
Nothing comes easy, unfortunately in life, health or commerce; however, the ability to keep pushing through and to strive for “better than…” can be a powerful tool in the desire to create a ground-breaking organization.
You’ve engaged women young and old to take more interest in their personal welfare. What type of response do you get from young women when you try to educate them about something as personal as pelvic health?
Women young and old are eager to talk about their pelvic health IF, again, you can make it appropriate and “seductive” and not scary or intimidating. You may have to start out talking about subjects that are more “where they are”, like their periods or sex, and then slowly lead them into a discussion of topics more relevant to their long term pelvic health. We continually find a receptivity that is refreshing and perhaps it is because the last time most of us were taught anything about our bladder or pelvic health was when we were about three, being potty trained. At the same time, on both a monthly basis and sometimes more frequently, this powerful place, the pelvis, is on our minds as women. Giving a young woman a sense of exactly WHAT is going on below the belt that has resulted in her getting her period, for example, can be entirely new (and exciting) information.
The “It’s Time to Talk about Sex After Menopause” campaign is a powerful way to get the word out about another neglected area of women’s health—menopause. In fact, many of the women in our online community have a hard time discussing either sex or menopause with their own doctors. How can they open the lines of communication?
It is difficult to begin a conversation with a doctor about sex after menopause, especially if the doctor doesn’t bring it up first! And, the truth is that many doctors don’t. A good first step is to prepare for the discussion before your appointment. Write down what you’ve been experiencing. Just jot down a few words or phrases, like “felt like sand paper” or “dry” or “I notice that I’m avoiding sex now because it is so painful.” Follow this with a couple of discussion openers like, “Is there anything I can do about….” Or “I’ve tried X but intercourse still hurts. Are there other options you can recommend?” As with most things, women are likely to find that once they take that first step, the dialogue will start to flow more easily than they anticipated. Preparation really helps, as does knowing they are not alone. That’s what our campaign, It’s time to Talk about Sex After Menopause, is all about – building a community and getting a national conversation going about an issue that effects so many of us.
Your foundation is committed to ending the “sisterhood of silence.” What advice would you give women to help them feel more confident in starting those candid conversations?
First off, realize that you are not alone in suffering from painful sex after menopause. Vulvovaginal atrophy is a common condition that happens as a result of the thinning and weakening of vaginal tissues due to a drop in estrogen after menopause. Then, understand that you don’t have to live with this condition. It is treatable and there are options. Next, make an appointment with your doctor. Prepare what you are going to say first. Write down your symptoms and a few questions. Do your homework. See what has been written about this condition by sources and organizations you trust. It is also a good idea to practice saying the words by talking about any pain you may be experiencing with sex after menopause. Talk with your girlfriends; you may find they are experiencing similar symptoms. The more you say the words, the more confident you feel.