As medicine evolves, it can be difficult to keep up with all the latest recommendations about when to get health screenings and which treatments are best for various conditions. At Care for Her, we focus on helping everyone women of all ages stay healthy.
One of the most important ways to stay healthy is for women to pay attention to their bodies and to trust their intuition. Many women play the role of caregiver—supporting children, aging parents, and ailing spouses. When women forego their own care to care for others, they do themselves and their loved ones a disservice. Identifying and addressing health problems early can prevent conditions from becoming more painful, more expensive to treat, and ultimately more damaging.
Take cancer, for example. Many cancers are treatable when discovered early. That is why it is so important to have regular checkups with your medical provider. For women who do not fall into high-risk categories, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends Pap tests (cervical cancer screening) every three to five years.
Women used to begin receiving annual Paps and pelvic exams when they became sexually active. Now, young women seeking birth control or testing for sexually transmitted diseases do not have to have these exams. ACOG recommends that women begin cervical cancer screening at age 21 and continue through age 65. The details about exactly how often and how long women undergo these exams should be determined based on the patient’s health goals and the advice of their medical providers.
Although an abnormal Pap test may indicate the presence of abnormal cells that could turn into cervical cancer, the good news is that when these abnormalities are identified early, or when a woman is treated during the cancer’s earliest stages, she often has a better-than-90-% chance of survival.
Another important screening is the mammogram; it is used breast cancer. ACOG recommends most women begin getting mammograms in their 40s, and have their first mammogram no later than age 50. Like cervical cancer, breast cancer can be much easier to treat when detected early.
As we age, additional cancer screenings become important. Women should get their first colonoscopy at age 50. Once women have gone through menopause (meaning, they haven’t had a period in more than 12 months), they should seek medical attention if they begin to bleed again. Vaginal bleeding after menopause is often an early warning sign of uterine cancer, another highly treatable cancer.
As a doctor, I like the way medicine is evolving. Not only are we able to identify and treat disease more effectively, we’ve moved the decision-making process from a one-sided, doctor-knows-best approach to a partnership between patients and providers. With my patients, I discuss their goals and medical history as well as the risks and benefits of different treatment options. I like to educate my patients so they can make informed choices.
It makes me sad when patients don’t come in because they are embarrassed or because they believe their symptoms will require treatment they do not want, like surgery. While surgery is sometimes the best option, it is usually the last of many options. With urinary incontinence, for example, we first screen for infection. We also look for any anatomical issues. In the absence of those, we can often help women learn to manage symptoms by strengthening muscles and “training” their bladders to go longer between leaks.
Regardless of your symptoms, if you are in pain or concerned about a possible health problem, schedule an appointment with your provider. Even if your symptom turns out to be nothing to worry about, it is worth going to the doctor. Knowing your symptom is not associated with an illness or disease can reduce your stress and anxiety, and that alone improves your health.
Dr. Christy is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist at Care for Her, a program of MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.