Have you ever heard the saying, “health is wealth?” Well, it’s true. Since we’re still currently in a pandemic and we are all doing everything we can to not contract the coronavirus, we might forget that if we take care of our overall health, it will help us in the long run. There are still so many unknowns with the pandemic, but thankfully, we know that if we’re on top of our standard health screenings we can help prevent some diseases and preconditions we have lots of information about (and methods to treat). As a doctor, I know most of us have a better hope of making it out of 2021 if we keep up with our regular doctor visits and get our proper screenings. So...let’s start with women’s health: Where should you begin?
Starting at age 21, a Pap Smear or Pap Test is a test for precancerous cell changes on the cervix that may develop into cervical cancer if they are not treated. From 21 on, this test should be performed every three years, which is a new guideline, considering that in the past, physicians performed these exams annually. The new guidelines suggest that annual testing is not necessary, but ave a discussion with your doctor about what is best for you. Also, make certain your insurance covers the testing if you and your doctor decide to receive this screening annually.
It is also important for women of every age to check regularly for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are tested with a swab of the cervix. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), syphilis, and hepatitis infections are determined with a blood test. If you’re the guardian of an adolescent or an adult between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages HIV testing, at least once as a routine part of medical care. The CDC advises yearly HIV testing if you are at high risk of infection.
Ladies, check your girls! I know you have seen this language in ads all over the internet and billboards—well, the girls we are talking about are your breasts. Black women with breast cancer are forty-one percent more likely to die from the disease than white women, so mammograms are also extremely important for us. Some doctors will do a baseline mammogram before forty, and then once you turn forty, you will need to get a mammogram annually. The good news is that if we do this screenings and are diagnosed early we can treat breast cancer early and you can live a long life as a survivor.
In the interim, self-breast exams are just as important as mammograms. They are best performed in the shower, using the pads of three fingers to check each breast for lumps. Move your fingers up and down, moving across one breast and then the other. Then, check the outside from armpit to collarbone, and below the breast. Check the middle from the breast itself and inside the nipple area. After you finish your shower, check for liquid coming from nipples, puckering of the skin, redness, swelling, change in size and/or shape. A self-breast exam can be performed using the same technique while lying down in bed. If you feel any lumps or changes, call your doctor immediately—but remember, most lumps are not cancer. It’s not about finding cancer; it’s about knowing what is normal for your breasts. If something does not feel normal, call your doctor.
Ladies, if you are interested in having a family, or if you are not sure if you will want to have a family later in life, you may want to just have your doctor check your ovarian reserve. Ovarian reserve is the capacity of the ovary to provide eggs for fertilization. The blood test to check ovarian reserve is the Anti-Müllerian Hormone (AMH) Test. If you are over thirty and interested in bearing children, you should ask your doctor to give you a blood test that checks your hormones so that you can find out your ovarian reserve. Normal hormone levels and regular menstrual cycles decrease the likelihood of fertility problems.
Similar to men, Black women also need to have our colon cancer screening test (colonoscopy) at forty-five, even if there is no immediate family history (mom, dad, brother, sister). If you do have a family history of colon cancer, physicians recommend that you have your first screening ten years before the age the family member was when they were diagnosed.
General health tests that should be performed regularly also include thyroid disease, blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. And remember: Mental health is also very important to your general health, so if you are having any feelings of depression, please seek professional help. Depression can be caused by chemical imbalances as well as life circumstances. Please keep in mind that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As long as you go to your doctor and have your annual exam for prevention you will be on the road to taking control of your health.
Women must be proactive about their healthcare. Many diseases can go years without being diagnosed, so preventive medicine is the best medicine.