Benefits of the Well Woman Exam
December, 2018 | Northside Woman | NorthsideWoman.com | By Dr. Christy Kenkel
It's that time again, time for the well woman exam. The anticipation of this event may not always make our hearts flutter with glee, but this doctor's visit can be one of the most important days of the year. In truth, well woman exams are vital to our health because they help detect problems that can become larger, perhaps dangerous burdens if they go unchecked.
A well woman exam, at its least, helps us maintain healthy, vibrant lives, and at its most, can be life-saving. A well woman exam generally consists of pelvic and clinical breast exams in addition to discussing lifestyle habits, safe sexual practices, contraception options, and recommended screening exams and vaccinations that vary based on age, lifestyle habits, and genetic risk factors. Here, I'll touch on the recommended screening exams you may encounter at your well woman exam.
For sexually active women under the age of 25, yearly STI testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis is recommended. This protects future fertility, protects against ectopic pregnancy, and prevents the spread of dangerous diseases. Testing in ages over 25 is certainly recommended if there are symptoms of infection or high-risk sexual practices.
Between the ages of 21-65 (with some exceptions after 65), regular pap smears are recommended. Roughly 80% of women have been exposed to high risk HPV by the age of 50. Importantly, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the high risk HPV. Pap smears check for the presence of high risk HPV, and to see if cervical cells exhibit abnormalities caused by this virus. If there are advanced cervical cell abnormalities, outpatient procedures can be performed to remove the portion of affected tissue at risk for morphing into cancer. Without first having a pap smear, these cell changes would be missed, and a patient could be at risk for cervical cancer, a deadly disease. The HPV vaccines are strongly recommended in hopes of alleviating the burden this virus creates.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and is either the most common or second most common cause of death from cancer among women of most races. Screening recommendations vary based on which guidelines are followed. The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology recommends yearly clinical breast exams and mammograms between the ages of 40-74. The frequency of screening tests can be increased depending on a patient's risk factors. Referrals for mammograms and breast imaging can be made at the annual well woman exam.
Even if we as patients feel anxious or burdened by the idea of visiting the gynecologist for our well woman exam, let us remember that ultimately it enables us to enjoy vibrant lives by keeping our bodies safe. As gynecologists, it is our commitment to help you achieve that.