Everyone knows that prevention is the key to good health. We all know the importance of eating right and exercise, regular medical and dental care. I’m no exception, but like many women, I get a little knot in my stomach every year as my Well Woman checkup approaches. It’s no secret that this appointment isn’t much fun, and some of us may even be tempted to skip it altogether, but Well Woman exams are a crucial part of keeping Mom—and the rest of the women in our lives—healthy.
With that in mind, let’s take a close look at exactly what a Well Woman exam covers. What is your healthcare provider looking for, and what might happen if problems are discovered?
Edmond mom of three Lori Richards is a nurse in a busy OB/Gyn practice in Oklahoma City, and was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few basic questions about the often-dreaded annual exams. Understanding more about what type of screenings are being done and why may help to ease some of the anxiety women feel when the appointment rolls around.
A Well Woman exam screens for several potential problems. “A basic exam on a healthy woman includes a breast exam, a pap smear and a manual pelvic exam to look for any abnormal masses or tenderness,” explains Richards. If breast lumps or abnormal tissue is found during the manual breast exam, a mammogram or ultrasound will usually be ordered to confirm that the abnormal tissue is benign, as it is in most cases. Likewise, if a patient reports pelvic pain or tenderness, an ultrasound will typically be performed to check for uterine fibroid cysts. “Fibroids are very common and usually will resolve on their own. They are generally the result of hormonal imbalance. In some cases, they are treated with progesterone to ease discomfort,” notes Richards.
All About Pap Smears
A pap smear checks for changes in the cells of the cervix. Abnormal cells may be the result of an infection, but they can also indicate a risk for cervical cancer, which is very treatable when caught early. If abnormalities are found, a follow-up pap may be ordered in 4-6 months. In some cases, particularly those in which the patient tests positive for human papillomavirus, a colposcopy may be ordered, which is a biopsy of the cervical tissue. Human papillomavirus (HPV) refers to a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types.
Approximately 30 percent of HPV strains are sexually transmitted, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50 percent of the adult population is carrying at least one type of HPV. According to Richards, “Some literature even puts the number as high as eighty percent. While this seems high, we tend to see a lot of it, particularly in patients under thirty, but it’s definitely not limited to this age group.” A vaccine is available for women under age 26 that protects against four types of HPV, including the two types that are most often responsible for cervical cancers.
Richards notes that as women age, additional tests may be recommended. “A baseline mammogram should be done at thirty five, and a bone-density scan and colonoscopy at fifty.” Depending on the results of those screenings, your healthcare provider will then advise you as to how often the tests should be repeated. In some cases, due to family or gynecological history, these screenings may be done earlier. “Women who have undergone hysterectomy at an early age should have their bone density checked a little earlier.”
One of the most important steps a woman can take in protecting her health is to have an annual Well Woman exam, which screens for several potential problems, including cervical and breast abnormalities. Finally, Richards urges that all women should be diligent in doing breast self-exams. “Breast cancer can affect a woman at any age. No one is immune, but the disease is preventable and highly treatable when it’s caught in its early stages.”
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.