Health check-ups for women
Listen up ladies! You should mark Women’s Month by empowering themselves through regular check-ups in order to ensure the early detection of treatable diseases which cause the unnecessary deaths of thousands of women every year.
“Fighting these diseases begins with educating yourself, about your body and the health risks that face women. You can empower yourself by getting the recommended annual medical check-ups.” says Dr Nicola Rains a general practitioner at NHC Health Centres, South Africa.
Annual medical consultations and examinations are a valuable opportunity during which the patient can be evaluated for unrecognised disease. It is recommended that women have several medical check-ups in their lives – these exams all depend on the patient’s age, lifestyle and risk levels.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), breast cancer is the leading cancer killer among women aged 20 – 59 years worldwide. Early detection remains the cornerstone of breast cancer control.
“Patients should be examining their breasts at least monthly from the age of breast development. A palpable mass should immediately be brought to the attention of your doctor for possible referral for an ultrasound or sonar,” says Dr Rains.
“The doctor will routinely examine your breasts annually. Mammograms should be performed annually, starting from 35 – 40 years of age. Family history will further determine the age at which to have your first screening mammogram.”
Pap smear and pelvic exam
A visit to the gynaecologist at least once a year for a pap smear and pelvic examination should also be scheduled into every woman’s calendar. A pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. It is performed to detect early cell changes in the womb which may later progress to cancer.
“A pap smear should be performed from 21 years of age or three years from when one starts being sexually active (whichever is soonest). If you are over the age of 21, you should still have a pap smear, even if you are not sexually active.”
WHO cites cervical cancer as the second most common type of cancer in women worldwide, with many cases linked to a sexually transmitted genital infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
“There are HPV vaccinations available in SA for girls from ages 9-26 years of age. Females between the ages of 27 and 45 should also discuss this option with their doctor,” adds Dr Rains.
A pelvic exam is also performed annually when you have your pap smear. This is where your doctor examines the uterus for masses, as well as the fallopian tubes and ovaries for tenderness or masses.
For women aged 15 – 44 years, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death worldwide. An HIV test should be done annually if sexually active. Tests for the other STIs such as syphilis, herpes simplex, hepatitis B, gonorrhoea or chlamydia will be advised if there is concern of exposure or if there are any suggestive symptoms.
Dr Rains also recommends these tests for females:
- Bone mineral density screening – This is beneficial because patients can be advised to manage their risk of, or be treated for osteoporosis. These tests are performed from age 50 and subsequent tests are done according to risk and the baseline result.
- Weight, BMI and waist circumference – These are useful measures to indicate whether the patient is at increased risk of diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.
- Blood pressure – From the age 18, get tested at least every two years if you have normal blood pressure (lower than 120/80). Get tested once a year if you have blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89. Consult your doctor if your blood pressure is >140/90 for possible diagnosis of hypertension. Test your blood pressure monthly if you are have been diagnosed with and treated for hypertension.
- Cholesterol – It is wise to know your cholesterol from as young as 20 years old, in order to manage risk from a young age. Patients with a family history of cardiovascular disease, who smoke, or have hypertension, should have their cholesterol reviewed annually. For those patients who have a normal cholesterol, no family history of disease, do not smoke and are not hypertensive, this test should be repeated in females after 50 years of age or sooner if either their lifestyle or weight changes.
- Diabetes test – In a patient without symptoms of diabetes, one may have a screening test to exclude type 2 diabetes by means of a fasting glucose level test annually from age 18.
“With demanding careers, raising kids and dealing with a changing world it’s easy for women to put themselves and their health at the bottom of their priority list. It’s important to take some time out, take a couple of hours out of a year to visit the doctor and get the check-ups. One test could be the life-changing one that will not only affect you, but your role as a wife, mother, sister or daughter. Use this Women’s Month to celebrate your health and take better care of your womanhood,” says Dr Rains.