Living Well: Women Should Position Self-Care First
Whether we're mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, aunts or more, women are experts at taking care of others. We know how to get things done.
But take it from me: You can't take care of anyone else if you aren't taking good care of yourself. That's why all women need regular women's health exams and care.
Health Is Wealth
When I am seeing a new patient, one of the standard questions I ask is when they had their last full check-up, including a pelvic exam and Pap test. Far too often, women tell me it's been 10 to 20 years since their last visit. If there's no noticeable problem, many women don't come in because they don't think they need it, or they don't feel like they can spare the time.
But your body isn't just something that can go endlessly without any care. If you bought a new car, would you just drive it without ever changing the oil or getting the brakes checked? Your body is far more important to you than any car, so you need to take steps to care for and maintain it, too.
Your body is also far more complex than any car, so you want the person caring for you to have education, training and experience. That is why having annual visits with a gynecologist is so important.
A typical annual exam for women involves a few different components, each of which looks for specific issues. Some of the most important parts of the exam include:
- Pelvic exam: This exam allows the gynecologist to look for any tissue changes or abnormalities. It's also the most reliable way available to screen for ovarian cancer. Women should typically start getting this exam annually at age 21.
- Pap test: This lab test looks for changes in the cells of a woman's cervix that can later lead to cancer. By collecting cells and then examining them under a microscope, we can screen for cervical cancer. This test starts at age 21 and happens at least every three years.
- Clinical breast exam: This exam allows a gynecologist to check for changes that might indicate breast cancer. If needed, a referral can be made for a mammogram or ultrasound, which can scan for cancer. This exam should take place every one or two years starting at age 20.
All screening guidelines are courtesy of the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
The annual exam also offers providers and patients an opportunity to discuss many other key health issues. These include:
- Birth control, menstruation and hormonal issues
- Pregnancy and pre-pregnancy concerns
- Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Behavioral health and depression
- Bone density screening and osteoporosis prevention
- Menopause and aging concerns
- Genetic testing if there is a family history of certain cancers, especially breast cancer
- Diet, exercise and good health habits
Know The Facts
One of the most common issues that I see with my patients is not knowing the truths from the myths. In some cases, it's the factor of not knowing that medicine has advanced to a point where an issue can be helped. In other cases, women think that because it happened to their mother or another relative, that it's normal. Some examples of these problems are urinary leakage, vaginal dryness, or hot flashes.
Sometimes women believe that they don't need annual exams because they have had a hysterectomy, aren't sexually active or they aren't heterosexual. Simply put, that's not true. All women need annual exams.
There are some red-flag issues to watch for with your health, where you should make an appointment and see your gynecologist as soon as possible. These are:
- Changes in your menstrual bleeding
- New pelvic or genital pain
- Unexpected changes in weight or abdominal bloating, including losing weight when you aren't trying
- Urinary incontinence (even in small amounts)
- Vaginal discharge or lesions
- Sexual dysfunction or pain during sex
- Breast concerns, including lumps and discharge
If you haven't had an annual exam in a year or more, make it a priority. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to do this, especially considering that by law these exams must be covered by insurance. If you don't have insurance, you can also get assistance with signing up through the federal health insurance exchanges, and we can help connect you with useful resources.
If you have a question but are embarrassed to ask it, I encourage you not to be. As medical professionals, my colleagues and I get a lot of questions that might be considered uncomfortable, but we are here to be a helpful resource to you. Our top priority is making sure you are healthy and happy, and we'll answer any question we can to make that a reality.
Dr. Amy Willcox is an OB/GYN with Owensboro Health Medical Group.
This article was first published on January 21, 2016 in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.