Having a yearly gynecological exam is an important aspect of responsible preventive health care and ensuring your physical and reproductive well-being. Despite warnings from leading medical organizations, many women fail to have an annual gynecological exam. This costs thousands of women their lives each year. Many women think they do not need a physician unless they have a problem.
In fact, problems are often first found through an annual exam. Every woman should be aware that diseases such as breast, cervical and ovarian cancer have few obvious symptoms, and earlier detection increases chances for survival.
Annual gynecological exams should begin around age 15. While pelvic exams are rarely required during these first visits, the annual exam helps to establish a doctor-patient relationship. Young women can ask any questions they have about their development and/or menstrual cycle, methods of birth control and how to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.
Most doctors now recommend an annual Pap smear for most women ages 21 and older. Many women have equated having a Pap smear with having an annual exam when in fact, a Pap smear is only one small component of the exam. Women should have a gynecological exam every year whether or not they are due for a Pap smear.
Avoiding routine yearly gynecological exams increases the risk for unintended pregnancy, pelvic infections, and potentially delaying diagnosis of diseases such as ovarian and breast cancer.
What should you expect at your exam? First, a comprehensive medical history is taken, including a family history to assess possible familial cancer risks. A physical exam is performed, including an assessment of blood pressure, height and weight, and a pelvic and breast exam.
During the pelvic exam the doctor may do a Pap smear, then check internally to examine the uterus and ovaries. Unlike cervical cancer, which is detected by Pap smear, ovarian cancer is very difficult to detect. Pain or other significant symptoms may not be noticed until the disease is well advanced. But if discovered early by a pelvic exam, it can be treated promptly which increases chances for survival.
Your doctor will also order a screening mammogram if you are between the ages of 35 and 40, and annual mammograms for women ages 40 and older. Patients of all ages will be taught to perform monthly self-breast exams. These steps are essential in helping to detect breast cancer, which kills more than 46,000 women each year.
Your doctor will discuss birth control methods or preconception counseling, protection from STDs, calcium intake requirements, the need for cholesterol screening, and the importance of regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet. They can also offer help on smoking cessation.
If you are postmenopausal or otherwise at risk, your doctor will recommend screening tests for osteoporosis, colon cancer and diabetes. Vaccines may also be offered during the annual visit, including human papillomavirus, tetanus boosters, Hepatitis B and flu. You should ask your doctor any questions you have about pregnancy, hormones, your menstrual cycle, menopause symptoms and other health issues.
Every woman should be conscientious about having a routine gynecological exam once a year. This exam serves to detect current health problems and evaluate risk factors for new problems that can develop. Early detection and learning ways to reduce your risks of cancer is every woman’s best defense. The annual gynecological exam helps provide guidance and testing that will promote wellness and good health habits for all women.