The Benefits of Annual “Well-Woman” Exams

It’s become increasingly common for women to put their own healthcare needs aside while caring for children, working or engaging in other activities. At every age, women should schedule an annual well-woman exam that includes preventive healthcare and guidance on diet, exercise, safety and contraception (for pre-menopausal women).

Regarding prevention, women often have questions or concerns about breast health, specifically screening mammograms, and pap smears. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 40, along with clinical breast exams. ACOG also recommends breast self-awareness – looking for lumps, swelling, change in size or shape, dimpling, discharge, rash or pain. This also may include monthly breast self-exams. Women should report any changes to their healthcare provider.

Breast cancer, which claims nearly 40,000 lives annually, is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your personal risk (based largely on family history) to see if you should consider enhanced screening, such as MRI or gene testing.

Each year there are more than 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 women die from this disease. Many women are surprised to learn that half of diagnosed cervical cancers are late stage, correlating with lack of screening, particularly in older women. Historically, it was recommended that women have annual pap smears to screen for cervical cancer; however, ACOG changed its recommendation to every two years beginning at age 21 and every three years starting at age 30. Your doctor will likely recommend more frequent testing if you have certain high-risk conditions, such as human papilloma virus (HPV) infection or a history of abnormal test results. Persistent HPV infection is the condition that causes cervical cancer. Pap smears can include HPV testing; ask your doctor for more details.

For today’s busy women, there are never enough hours in the day. Remember to take some time out to get a well-woman exam. It’s one of the best ways to maintain and improve your health for years to come.

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