Well Women Exams
Part One of a Two-Part Series
If you are a woman, this is your month! May is not only a time to honor the women who have made a wonderful difference in your life, it’s also when Women’s Health Week happens. This means it’s time to take care of you. The best way to start is with a well-woman exam.
When was the last time you (or your loved one) had one? A well-woman exam is key to understanding all the life cycles you experience — your childbearing years, pregnancy, menopause and elder years —and how to stay your healthiest during them.
Well-women exams should start between 13-15 years old, and they should be annual. They’re a great time to ask questions and get information.
“Well woman exams are important,” said Andreia Arnold, Nurse Practitioner at Equality Care Center in Phoenix. “They allow your health practitioner to identify disease processes such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, STIs — things that would normally go unnoticed.”
Some of these may show symptoms and some, especially cervical cancer, stay silent and are only discovered through tests.
“In fact,” Arnold said, “the Pap smear allows the provider to detect any precancerous cells. So before we get to the point of cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, things of that nature, the healthcare provider has a jump on things.”
What are the chances your doctor will find something? Out of 100,000 women, the Arizona Department of Health Services found 13 get ovarian cancer, 7.3 get cervical cancer (most incidences are preceded by HPV, which makes getting the HPV vaccination a wise decision if you are sexually active) and up to 871 (the older you are, the greater the risk) get breast cancer.
“Sometimes if that ‘something’ is found early enough,” said Arnold, “that something does not develop into a large something that cannot be treated. Early detection is always best in any case. Completing that well-woman exam will give your provider a baseline to compare future exams and any abnormalities are quickly detected.”
Your chances of having a healthy pregnancy are great — especially if you receive good care before you conceive and certainly after. Risks rise if you have other health issues such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Arnold advised every woman should take prenatal exams seriously.
“Major neurological development of your baby occurs during the first six weeks of your pregnancy,” Arnold said. “So that’s why it’s so important to start prenatal care. Immediately. As soon as you believe you are pregnant, go to your PCP to be tested and get a referral to an OB-GYN.”
Once pregnant, Arnold advised to prepare for a major expansion of your abdomen to accommodate your growing baby. Next, don’t be surprised if you get morning sickness. Then watch for movement.
“We must be aware of the first sign of your baby moving,” Arnold said, “which may feel like butterflies in your stomach and is known as quickening. This starts around five months. We must be in tune with that because it is a reliable indicator of how well your baby is forming or growing.”
Once you deliver, postpartum visits give your OB-GYN a chance to make sure you’re making a healthy recovery, and they give you a chance to ask questions. Also, your infant needs to start well-child visits, which are critical for your child’s health.
Some time around 45-55 years old, you begin your menopausal transition. Arnold defined menopause as when you haven’t had a period for 12 months. The years leading up to that time, called perimenopause, is when those classic menopausal symptoms occur.
“We have the hot flashes,” Arnold went down the list, “we notice the weight gain, we can have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. During that time your cycle is irregular, and you may notice your emotional state will change fairly quickly.”
These emotions include anger.
“Ooooh yes,” Arnold said. “There’s a saying that menopausal women are live wires all the time, and rightfully so. Crying and depression are also big emotional symptoms for many women.”
Perimenopause can last up to six years. Your well-woman checks will help keep you informed and confident during the changes you experience during this time.
Your Elder Years
As you age, your bone density decreases, your skin thins, your sense of taste may fade and the risk of cardiovascular issues increases. Unless you remain connected to your family, friends and community, depression can creep in.
“That’s the period where we see a high incidence in severe depression. This is depression that is not shared with loved ones. It’s going to be important to make sure our women follow up with their PCPs, maybe even a counselor.”
Become a Well Woman
Don’t miss our next article, publishing May 26th to learn more about each of your life cycles and how to live your healthiest during them.
Published in Prensa Arizona, 5/12/2022