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What women can do — and should do — to protect their health

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's fair to say, when it comes to our health, what most of us want is a doctor who will listen without judgment, who will give us time to ask questions and then collaborate on a plan of action. But let's face it, navigating the American health care system is tough for most people these days. And our next guest says it's even harder if you are a woman, a woman of color or a woman dealing with a serious health concern. But she says there are still things you can do and should do to protect your health. Dr. Sharon Malone has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years, and she has a new book out that aims to help women get the quality care they deserve. It's called "Grown Woman Talk: Your Guide To Getting And Staying Healthy." Dr. Sharon, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SHARON MALONE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: A lot of people might know your name because you are on social media. You've been in popular lifestyle magazines like Essence, Oprah Daily and Ms. And your sister Vivian is kind of a civil rights heroine. I mean, she helped integrate the University of Alabama. But you start this book with a fairly bracing message. You say that, particularly your mom and to some extent your sister didn't get the healthcare they deserved. What do you mean, and why did you start there?

MALONE: You know, I think it was very important for me to sort of center the message that I'm really trying to get. I'm not writing this book just as a doctor. I'm writing it because I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, I'm a friend. And telling the story of my mother was really important 'cause it was pivotal to me. I was 12 years old when I lost my mother, but even as a child, I knew that there was really something wrong with what happened there. And I think that the care that she got was really dependent upon what her relationship was with medicine and with doctors. And to be honest with you, she didn't have a relationship. And, you know, I think it cost her her life.

MARTIN: And say more about that. Why do you say that?

MALONE: Because my mom, she grew up in rural Alabama, and they didn't have doctors. They didn't have hospitals. My mom died of colon cancer, something that we all know that people can and should survive now. But she didn't know what the signs were. She didn't know what to do or where to go. And unfortunately, by the time she interacted with a doctor, it was way too late. She was already Stage 4.

MARTIN: One of the other bracing messages in your book is that you say the health care system is broken. It's broken for everybody, but it's especially broken for women because it wasn't built for women. Can you just say a little bit more about that?

MALONE: Sure. I mean, if you can imagine that it wasn't until 1993 that women were even included in clinical trials, and we are still trying to recover from that, even in the field of gynecology. We are so far behind in terms of how we value women's lives. And that's one of the reasons that I wrote this book because we spend a lot of time talking about maternal health, and we should, but what we don't talk about is the totality of women's health. And we're going to spend way more of our lives in those non-pregnant states than we are in any other time of our lives.

MARTIN: Let me just be sort of clear about the book 'cause you're framing the problem. But one of the things that this book is very clear about is that's all true. You can't let the system problem interfere with addressing your own health because you can't wait for it to get fixed. So where do you start?

MALONE: You start by understanding that you're the captain of your own ship, and you are your primary caregiver. The notion that someone's going to come and save you or someone's going to take care of you - dispel that thought because they're not. To a certain extent, it's never really been that way, and it's even more so now as the nature of medicine has really changed.

MARTIN: Your first chapter is about securing what you call the right team of health care professionals, ideally before you need them. I got to ask you, like, how?

MALONE: You start with a primary care doctor, sometimes a gynecologist, and then as you get older, you need an internal medicine doctor. And you let that doctor give you recommendations about the other subspecialties that you may need. And the reason why that's important is because you need to make sure that your doctors are able to communicate with each other.

MARTIN: And you write about making the most of your doctor's appointments. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of sort of leaving and then kicking yourself for not asking all the questions that you wanted to ask or feeling - even maybe some people feel, like, embarrassed to ask their doctor what's really on their mind. So what's your advice there?

MALONE: Yeah, I think that's where a little prep work is important, but be prepared and organized before you go because, you know, under stress, you forget. We as doctors - in a lot of cases, we're well-meaning, and I think that we think that we're communicating, but we're really not. And I'm just amazed and appalled by the number of things - the information that doesn't get communicated to patients.

MARTIN: So two thick chapters in the book are dedicated to perimenopause and menopause, subjects that, you know, frankly, I don't think a lot of people are used to hearing discussed in a public space. So why did you think that was important?

MALONE: We think of menopause as something that happens to old ladies, and it's not. It's something that happens to us, you know, some of us in our 30s and 40s. So you should start thinking about it well in advance of when you've had your last period because there are a lot of things that we should know and not be afraid to discuss because they can be addressed if you only knew what it was and what to do about it.

MARTIN: I would be remiss if I didn't mention the playlist throughout the book. You actually - you have musical notes followed by a song, and I actually found myself, when I was reading the book, pulling out my phone to listen to the song that you kind of recommended. I thought that was very funny and unexpected. Why did you do that?

MALONE: I love music. I'm only going to write one book. I love music. I love telling stories. I love family stories. And I like to give medical advice. So let's just sort of wrap all that up into one package here. But in my book I talk about tough things. You know, we talk about cancer. We talk about heart disease. We talk about Alzheimer's. And if there's anything I want you to take away from the book, it's this. It's that not only do you have more control over just your - the medical interaction you have with your physicians. You have more control over your health and your outcomes than you think you do. So we mix in a little music to lighten it up a little bit.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Sharon Malone. Her new book is "Grown Woman Talk: Your Guide To Getting And Staying Healthy." Dr. Sharon, thank you so much for talking to us.

MALONE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDEEP'S "LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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