Even though my patients include women of all ages from a variety of cultural backgrounds, they almost all share a core trait: the desire to take care of those they love, whether that’s a life partner, their kids, aging parents, or close friends. Too often, however, they forget to take care of themselves.
When inconvenient symptoms arise, many women say to themselves, “It’s just a little vaginal bleeding,” or “It’s just a little pain.” They take some Advil and go on with their day without a peep to anyone.
They might be right; it might be nothing. But if these are early signs of a serious illness, ignoring them can have a huge effect on their lives and the lives of all those they care for. As the old saying goes, you cannot get water from an empty well. If you are a woman who takes care of others, you need to care for yourself first.
Women’s Health Exam
One of the best ways to stay healthy is to schedule an annual well-woman exam. This appointment includes a physical exam to see if there are any concerning symptoms (nodules, lesions, lacerations). It includes a breast and pelvic exam. If there are any concerning findings, the provider may recommend imaging or lab studies. The appointment also includes an evaluation of a patient’s social and emotional health. As most people know, our physical health affects our mental health and vice versa.
Even if there are no concerning findings, a patient may be due for a routine cancer screening, including a pap test for cervical cancer. Since the 1980s, we’ve seen a huge reduction in cervical cancer cases thanks to improved screening (early treatment) and the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Whenever new treatments are developed, I read the literature so I understand the risks and benefits. I don’t jump on the first thing that comes on the market. After a careful review, there is no question in my mind that the HPV vaccine is a brilliant advancement in medicine. I recommend it to friends and family.
HPV And Cervical Cancer
Some parents worry that by providing the HPV vaccine they are somehow signaling to their kids that it is safe to go out and have sex. That is not how it works. The hard truth for many parents is that their kids will have sex when they choose to, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. All preteens need HPV vaccination, so they are protected from HPV infections that can cause cancer later in life.
The first time I saw a patient with advanced cervical cancer, I was a third-year medical student. We tried to do a pelvic exam but the cancer had spread so much; I couldn’t find the landmarks (regular organs were hard to recognize). I remember thinking to myself, “With a pap smear, this could have been prevented.” It was heartbreaking.
Preventive Care For Women’s Health
The cost of preventive screenings are covered by most health insurance policies, and if you don’t have insurance, health centers like MCHC Health Centers can work with you to get them covered financially. Please don’t let money be the reason you don’t come in.
Yearly well-woman exams help catch health problems early, and not only gynecological issues. We do a full exam and if you have symptoms unrelated to gynecology, we’ll refer you to the right specialist. It’s so interesting that many of us take better care of our cars than we do of our bodies. We get oil changes every 5,000 miles, but we don’t make regular medical appointments.
Women’s Mental Health
Well-woman exams also focus on mental health. We ask questions like, “Are you safe in your home? Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you feeling down?” We know everyone faces hard times–struggles with finances, kids, partners, physical and emotional abuse, poor health, aging, and more. In the last ten years, research has shown that counseling, medication, or both can improve people’s quality of life by a lot.
Women’s Mental Health Provider
If you haven’t seen your women’s health provider in the last year, or if you have any symptoms causing you concern, I encourage you to make an appointment today. If it turns out there’s nothing wrong with you, that’s great! That news can improve your mental health. If you discover a problem then you’ll have the information you need to start healing. Either way, it’s a win.
Dr. German Cuadra is a bilingual obstetrician and gynecologist at 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.