Cindy Pearson: Executive Director of the National Women's Health Network

Cindy Pearson is the executive director of the National Women’s Health Network. She was one of the panelists at the Future of Women’s Health event/25th Anniversary of the Office of Women’s Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Her Campus American University had the incredible opportunity to attend the event and sit down and talk with Ms. Pearson. She answered some very important questions regarding the health of collegiettes, and she gave us advice on how to be our healthiest. It was a privilege to talk to and learn from Ms. Pearson.

Her Campus American University: For our readers who do not know about the National Women’s Health Network, can you describe the organization?

Cindy Pearson: We got started in 1976, when there was a quota on how many women could be in medical school. The FDA didn’t let any drug manufacturers put written information about the drugs into the packages for consumers to read, and women couldn’t take a friend, a mom, or their husband into the delivery room when they had babies. So we were about making a grassroots rights movement. We have rights in healthcare, women have rights in healthcare, we have a right to go to medical school, we have a right to take whoever we want with us into the delivery room, we have rights to know information about the drugs we take, and we have rights to be in an informed decision making-process about our treatments.

We’re independent, we don’t take any corporate money. Most health and patient advocacy groups do take money because it’s so hard to raise the money. We got into individual membership in the '80s and built up a a membership around the country of thousands of people who support us. So that’s the main support we have for our organization, and it’s what funds our work about drug and device safety. We’re an FDA watch dog, and we can say whatever we think because we don’t have any money with strings attached that we have to worry about the risk of losing.

HCAU: How did you become a part of the National Women’s Health Network?

CP: When I was in college as an undergrad, I saw a presentation by women who had started a Well Women’s clinic a few years before. At that point, that was pretty new that concept: ‘We do need to see healthcare providers for infection checks, GYN exams, birth control visits; but we’re not sick." We don’t need to be treated as if we’re patients in that setting. I got really inspired by it and started volunteering, and that’s what lead to me working in women’s health.

HCAU: Which women’s health issue are you most passionate about?

CP: Wow! That’s hard to say because I work for an organization that takes up lots of different issues. I am really passionate about women having access to accurate information that’s not biased, that’s not designed by someone who is selling a product, and being respected to be part of a decision making process, not being told what to do.

HCAU: What do 25 years of the Office of Women’s Health mean to you?

CP: Pride! (She said with a smile) I was here when it started, we were a part of getting this started. It didn’t just happen because someone thought, ‘Oh, what a good idea!’ This was demand, we demanded that the federal government of the United States be fair to us, and take equal an approach to women’s health as to general health. I’m just really proud that we made a change that’s lasting and paying off, and improving women’s health.

HCAU: What do you hope to see in the next 25 years regarding women’s health?

CP: Healthcare as a human right. That if you’re born, you deserve healthcare. That’s the biggest thing, I hope. And then, I have hope for the campaigns for different sorts of justice, for living wage, Black Lives Matter, and immigration reform. That all these succeed in a way that supports a life, and the life itself supports good health. That housing is not so unstable for so many people, that the built environment supports activity: walking, cycling. That people live in places where it’s safe to exercise or get activity outside the house, so that those kinds of policies and decisions are much more common and they support a healthy approach to life, as well as really good medical care.

HCAU: Her Campus is online magazine for college women. What do you think is the most important health issue facing college aged women?

CP: Wow, I think college women don’t get the respect they deserve for making good sexual health decisions, because they do! Some don’t, for every generality there’s exceptions; but as a whole college women make really good decisions about their sexual health. Many of them start college with some deficits in their education about sexuality, a failure of our educational system, but they catch up quickly because there’s a lot of great peer education programs. I think for many college women the challenge of that time is to find a way to make the good health habits that their parents lectured them about, or forced on them, to own them themselves, and to integrate themselves as adults. These are habits that are important to me: sleeping enough and eating three meals a day. Starting off adult life with those habits makes an enormous difference in putting off diseases of aging until you’re really super old, getting on bad habits can bring on those diseases of aging, like diabetes and heart disease, quite young-as young as the forties or fifties. So that’s what I would say.

HCAU: Is there anything, that you would like collegiettes, as we call them, to know about their health?

CP: I think college women do know a lot about their sexual and reproductive health, they sure know about getting their pap smears and their vaccinations. I guess what I would say is that, the habits you’re starting to build now will affect your health, twenty, forty, fifty years from now. That’s kind of boring (She said laughing).

HCAU: This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, what do you believe collegiettes and all women should know about breast cancer?

CP: Know your body, be familiar with your body and what’s normal for you. If you feel a change in your breast no matter how young or old you are, have someone check it out and insist that they treat you respectfully. Otherwise, collegiettes don’t need to worry so much, unless they are unfortunately in a family where breast cancer is very common. It’s not an issue that is of concern for college age women-it’s very rare at that age. Knowing your body is super important. Caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you to make a political difference, is great, and therea re many young women who take up a breast cancer as a cause. But in terms of what you need to worry about in your own life at that moment, worry about car crashes, drunk drivers, and the person who might be slipping up on their good sexual health practices. And intimate partner violence, I think that is a big issue and one that college age women are addressing themselves, trying to not only educate about but to make a difference, and I have a lot of respect for that activist work. I think they should be clear-eyed about, "What are our issues? We’re in our twenties.” Breast cancer is not going to get women in their twenties, unless you are in one of those families where there is some sort of genetic mutation that makes it common at a young age.

HCAU: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

CP: You are going to fall off, either your college health plan or your parents' health plan, sooner than you think. It’s going to come really quick, that time when you’ve got to be responsible for your own health insurance. And I wish that the world was organized, that wherever you got a job they would automatically give you good coverage, but sadly that’s not true. I want you to know that within a few years, you may face a painful financial decision of, ‘Do I have to pay money, out of my own pocket, that I don’t have much of, to get coverage that I probably won’t use?’ Yes! The answer is, yes. Don’t let your coverage lapse, go to the exchange if you can’t get cover through a job, once you age out, and stay covered. You might be able to get away with going without for a period of time, but so many people have tried that and had that one accident, that one bad diagnosis, that it just left them with a crashing load of debt that was a burden for so long afterwards. So it’s really important. Get covered. Stay covered.

Take notes! Ms. Pearson knows what she’s talking about. The pieces of her experience and knowledge in the field of women’s health, that she shared, are so valuable and important.

Photo credit: 1, 2 (photo belongs to the author), 3, 4