Now that kids are back in school, it may be a good time to remind moms that looking after themselves is not selfish but critical to the overall welfare of their family. When Mom’s not well the whole family is likely to struggle.
Don’t associate going to the doctors with being sick. Regular preventative care is the best way to stay healthy and avoid getting sick in the first place.
If you don’t regularly visit your doctor or other health professional, you could be missing out on crucial health screenings that not only could identify problems early, but also help establish a baseline picture of your overall health should you get sick in the future.
There are some screenings everyone should get, such as annual physicals and dental checkups, but there are some specific to women that can help save lives.
Here are those health screenings that every woman needs.
Pelvic exams and Pap tests
Around the time a girl begins to menstruate, she should start to have regular gynecologic checkups. During those exams, practitioners typically perform pelvic exams and pap tests.
A pelvic exam and Pap smear are important in preventative health care since they can help detect signs of certain cancers and diseases in their early stages before a patient begins experiencing symptoms. They can also help your doctor detect any infections, ovarian abnormalities and uterine masses like fibroids.
A key part of the physical exam with your health care provider or at your annual OB-GYN appointment, is a clinical breast exam. This involves visually inspecting and feeling your breasts and under-arms for lumps or anything unusual. Teaching you how to do this in an organized way is also an important part of your team’s responsibility.
Clinical breast exams by a health professional, in addition to breast self-exams, are an important part of early detection strategies. Most guidelines suggest that clinical breast exams should begin by age 20 and be repeated every one to three years until age 39. They should become annual at the age of 40. Women should perform a self-exam once a month.
A mammogram is an x-ray of breasts, producing pictures that your doctor can look at to identify any abnormalities in the breast tissue. I’ve written before about the wonderful advances in mammography techniques in recent years, but none of them matter if you don’t get the studies done!
Mammograms can detect breast cancer early when it’s most treatable. Mammograms can show changes in the breast up to two years before a patient or physician can feel them in a breast exam. Although the exact details are a bit controversial, it’s reasonable to recommend that women should start having annual mammograms starting at age 40 regardless of if they have symptoms or a family history of breast cancer. They could be recommended sooner depending on your family history or inherited gene mutations. Set up a personalized plan with your team and stick with it.
Bone density screening
Beginning at age 65, women should start getting screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test.
During a bone density scan, x-rays measure how much calcium and other bone materials are in a segment of bone, usually in the spine, hip or forearm. The recommended frequency for this screening varies from person to person based on their bone density and their osteoporosis risk factors.
Women should visit a dermatologist every other year or so for a thorough skin exam. But you can schedule a visit sooner if you notice any suspicious spots.
Most forms of skin cancer can be found early with skin exams. This includes a regular exam by your doctor and checking your own skin frequently. Finding it early makes it easier to treat. Skin exams are especially important for women with reduced immunity, who have had skin cancer before or have a strong family history of skin cancer.
When checking your skin yourself, remember A, B, C, D, E: asymmetry, border irregularity, uneven color, diameter larger than 6 millimeters and evolving shape and size. These are signs you might have a spot your doctor should take a closer look at.
Heart health screenings
More women than men die of heart disease each year, so these screenings are especially important.
The key to preventing heart disease is managing risk factors. Those risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood glucose levels. The best way for you to find out if you have any of these risk factors is by scheduling regular doctor visits – your doctor will routinely check your blood pressure at these visits. Your doctor may be able to take blood samples for the other tests or send you to a diagnostic center and then review the results with you.
Women should start having their cholesterol checked at age 20 and their blood glucose levels checked starting at age 45. Having your glucose levels checked will also let your doctor know if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Ladies, you know how much we depend on you. Caring for yourself is as important as anything else you do. Please make time for it in your busy lives.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]