Health Matters: Yes, You Should Get an Annual Well-Woman Exam
For decades, women got a pap test every single year. No one looked forward to it, but we did it anyway. It was like getting the oil changed in our car every 3000 miles, it’s just what responsible women did. We figured the consequences of not doing it could be far worse, so off we went to the doctor (or the mechanic).
Then the standard of care changed, and women were told they only needed to get a pap test every three years. Unfortunately, this is when many women stopped going to their women’s healthcare provider every year, and problems that used to be caught early were now allowed to go unchecked for years. The truth is, even healthy women need to see their healthcare provider every year as our bodies are constantly changing.
Traditionally, women are the caretakers of the family. Many of us love this role, but sometimes we get so busy taking care of everyone else, we forget care for ourselves.
This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, a good time to take stock of our health and wellness, and to get an annual mammogram if you’re 40 years or older with normal risk factors. However, before you get your mammogram, consider scheduling your annual well-woman exam, because your provider may recommend a diagnostic mammogram rather than a screening mammogram if she finds any unwelcome lumps or bumps.
At an annual well-woman exam, your healthcare provider will do a head-to-toe assessment, checking everything from your thyroid to your breasts to your midsection and your pelvic region. You’ll be asked to complete a short questionnaire about your physical and emotional health, too. Your provider will talk with you about any problems or concerns you have and may order basic blood tests if needed, for example, cholesterol screening, thyroid, and/or a test called the complete blood count (CBC) that tests for problems like anemia, infection and leukemia. If you are interested, you may also get tested for sexually transmitted infections. In addition, a pap smear will be done when you are due for it, and if indicated, you may be tested for HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer.
One of the reasons an annual well-woman exam is so important is because many of us get so busy in our day-to-day lives that we don’t pay much attention to subtle changes. Those changes can be our body’s way of signaling that something is wrong. Also, medical providers may recognize when a combination of symptoms may point to a more serious condition.
How many of us can relate to these symptoms? We feel tired. We feel irritated or weepy. Our periods become less regular. We start putting on more weight. These could simply be the result of our feeling overwhelmed because we are working too much or our children are going through a particularly difficult stage or we’re perimenopausal, but it’s also possible that hypothyroidism is causing these symptoms and with a little medication, life could be so much better.
Whether you are single or the caretaker of a big family, you deserve to feel your best. Different ages and stages are natural, but since you’ve never been each new age before, it’s hard for you to know what’s normal. When you visit your healthcare provider, you can work with them to optimize your health. Maybe a small change in diet and exercise will do the trick. Maybe hormone replacement therapy will allow you to transition gracefully into menopause. Maybe that niggling feeling that something is wrong will allow you to catch an illness in its early stages while it’s still treatable.
If you haven’t been to your women’s healthcare provider for more than a year, consider making an appointment for your well-woman exam today.
Kristin Laporte, MD, is an OB/GYN at Care for Her, a service of MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral healthcare to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.