National Women’s Health Month, kicked off by Mother’s Day each year, is recognized to empower women to make their health a priority—an effort that all too often gets put on the backburner while women are out, like, running the world. As much as I wish women didn’t have to worry about all the health concerns that come along with just being a woman, the truth is that your biological make-up really does impact your predisposition to certain conditions.
In the spirit of achieving better health during National Women’s Health Month—and every day moving forward—consider this your friendly reminder to make a trip to the doctor to make sure everything’s in check. (And if you’re totally unsure of what specifically you should be getting checked, keep on reading.)
Keep Up With Your Annual Pap Smear
Pap smears are the mildly uncomfortable but very necessary screening procedure for cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). Your OB/GYN will quickly swab your cervix for cells, so any abnormal cells can be detected—the first step in putting a stop to any potential development of cervical cancer.
In general, doctors recommend starting your annual pap smears at age 25—but if you’re sexually active you should definitely be getting annual pap smears regardless of how old you are!
…And Your Annual Mammogram
Early detection of breast cancer is so important for so many reasons. Think: treatment options, survival rates, and quality of life. The earlier you detect breast cancer, the better—but because so many women missed their annual mammogram due to the pandemic, more and more cases of breast cancer are going undetected. In 2020, there was a 60% decrease in the rate of annual mammograms.
According to the American Cancer Society, women should start getting screened for breast cancer through an annual mammogram starting at the age of 40. Here’s a bit about what you should know about them:
Mammography is the most accurate process out there to help detect signs of breast cancer as early as possible. Basically, you put both of your breasts (one at a time) into high-tech scanning equipment that uses X-rays to examine your breast tissue. The machine has plates that will briefly compress your breast horizontally, and then diagonally, to take digital images of the tissue.
Once you start getting mammograms, your doctor will compare your most recent digital images to those from your past mammograms to identify any changes. There’s also no question that it’s best to detect cancer as early as possible—which is kinda what mammograms are best at.
Self-Breast Examinations Are Key
In addition to annual mammograms, the American Cancer Society recommends performing a self-breast exam every month—starting at the age of 20.
We know it’s a lot—but here’s the thing: over 25% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump. The best time to perform a self-breast exam is about 3-5 days after your period starts, because your breasts are much less likely to be tender. If you don’t have a period, it’s best to perform your self-breast exam on the same day of every month. Here’s how to do it:
1. First, take a look at your breasts in a mirror with your arms at your sides. Then, with your arms over your head, visually inspect them for any irregular changes.
3. Now, lie down on a pillow on a flat surface. Put your pillow under your right shoulder, and put your right arm behind your head. With your left hand, make small circular motions covering your entire left breast and armpit area. Check for any unusual lumps, bumps, or dimples—and be sure to use light, medium, and firm pressure. Lastly, gently squeeze your nipple to check for any discharge.
4. Repeat these steps on your left breast.
Bone Density Scans
Bone density scans are performed to detect signs of osteoporosis: a very common skeletal disorder that disproportionately affects women. A direct result of a calcium deficiency, osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle, making them much more likely to break or fracture. Unfortunately, many women don’t actually know they have osteoporosis until a break or fracture occurs—so to prevent a shocking, seemingly out-of-nowhere diagnosis like this, regular bone density tests are a must.
Basically, bone density tests use small amounts of x-ray technology to measure the mineral levels in your bones. I’m no doctor, so I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details on the complex calculations that go into the actual measurements of your bone density—but one thing you should know is that, like most things, these measurements mean different things for different people. What may be considered a “low” bone density for some women may actually be totally normal for other women (and vice versa), depending on your medical history.
If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is—but that doesn’t make it any less important. Talking to your doctor and being as thorough and honest as possible about your medical history (and that of your family) is always a must.
Most people don’t take annual physical exams as seriously as they should—and I’m totally guilty of this, too. It’s easy (and much more convenient) to only go to the doctor when you’re experiencing symptoms or unusual problems—but that’s exactly how so many medical concerns go undetected for far longer than they should.
Annual physical exams allow your doctor to assess your general health regardless of any prominent and obvious symptoms. This includes testing your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose level, your heart & lungs, and your neurological function—which all assess vital health factors for long-term health.