Get Screened! Tests Every Woman Needs

Health screenings can spot diseases early, when they’re easier to treat

A tenant of the Affordable Care Act is preventive care. That includes health screenings. Getting checked early can help you stop diseases like cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis in the beginning stages, when they’re easier to treat. In fact, screening tests can spot illnesses even before symptoms develop. Some tests (Pap test or breast exam) should be a routine part of every woman’s health care. Other tests might be necessary based on your age, family history, your own health history and other risk factors. So talk to your physician about being screened.
Breast Cancer
The earlier you find breast cancer, the better your chance of a cure. Small breast cancers are less likely to spread to lymph nodes and vital organs like the lungs and brain. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, your health-care provider should perform a breast exam as part of your regular check-up every one to three years. Mammograms are low-dose X-rays that can often find a lump before you ever feel it, though normal results don’t completely rule out cancer. While you’re in your 40s, you should have an annual mammogram. After age 50, switch to every other year. Your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings if you’re at higher risk.
Cervical Cancer
With regular Pap smears, cervical cancer is easy to prevent. Pap smears find abnormal cells on the cervix, which can be removed before they ever turn into cancer. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a type of STD. During a Pap smear, your doctor scrapes some cells off your cervix and sends them to a lab for analysis. You should get your first Pap smear by age 21 (earlier if you’re already sexually active), and every two years after that. If you’re 30 or older, you can get HPV tests, too, and wait a little longer between Pap smears.
Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, can protect women younger than 26 from several strains of HPV. The vaccines don’t protect against all the cancer-causing strains of HPV (and not all cervical cancers are caused by HPV), so it’s still important to have routine Pap smears.
After menopause, women start to lose bone mass. (Note: Men get osteoporosis, too.) The first symptom is often a painful bone break after even a minor fall. In Americans age 50 and older, the disease contributes to about half the fractures in women. Though the common belief—even among some in the medical community—is that osteoporosis is a disease of white and Asian women, African Americans also contract this. A special type of X-ray called dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) can measure bone strength and find osteoporosis before breaks happen. It can also help predict the risk of future breaks. This screening is recommended for all women age 65 and older.
Skin Cancer
There are several kinds of skin cancer, and early treatment can be effective for them all. The most dangerous is melanoma. Some people have an inherited risk for this type of cancer, which may increase with overexposure to the sun. Basal cell and squamous cell are common non-melanoma skin cancers. Watch for changes in your skin, especially to moles and freckles. Pay attention to changes in their shape, color and size. And have your skin checked by a dermatologist or other health professional during your regular physicals.
High Blood Pressure
As you get older, your risk of high blood pressure increases, especially if you are overweight. High blood pressure can cause life-threatening heart attacks or strokes without any warning. Blood pressure readings include two numbers. The first (systolic) is the pressure of your blood when your heart beats. The second (diastolic) is the pressure between beats. Normal adult blood pressure is below 120/80. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is 140/90 or above. Ask your doctor how often you should have your blood pressure checked.
High cholesterol can cause plaque to clog your arteries. Plaque can build up for many years without symptoms, eventually causing a heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking can all cause plaque to build up, too. To get your cholesterol checked, you’ll need to fast for 12 hours. Then you’ll take a blood test that measures total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fat). If you’re 20 or older, you should get this test at least every five years.
Type 2 Diabetes
One-third of Americans with diabetes don’t know they have it. Diabetes can cause heart or kidney disease, stroke, blindness from damage to the blood vessels of the retina and other serious problems. You can control diabetes with diet, exercise, weight loss, and medication, especially when you find it early. You’ll probably have to fast for eight hours or so before having your blood tested for diabetes. A blood sugar level of 100 to 125 may show prediabetes; 126 or higher may mean diabetes. Other tests include the A1C test and the oral glucose tolerance test. If you’re healthy and have a normal diabetes risk, you should be screened every three years starting at age 45. Talk to your doctor about getting tested earlier if you have a higher risk, like a family history of the disease.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. It’s spread through sharing blood or body fluids with an infected person, such as through unprotected sex or dirty needles. Pregnant women with HIV can pass the infection to their babies unless they take medication to prevent this. There is still no cure or vaccine, but early treatment with anti-HIV medications can help the immune system fight the virus. HIV can be symptom-free for many years. The ELISA or EIA (blood) test looks for antibodies to HIV. If you get a positive result, you’ll need a second test to confirm the results. Still, if you’ve been infected recently, you can test negative even if you’re infected, so you may need to repeat the test. Everyone should get tested at least once between ages 13 and 64, more often if you’re not in a monogamous relationship or have been engaging in risky behaviors.
Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death after lung cancer. Most colon cancers come from polyps that grow on the inner lining of the large intestine. The polyps may or may not be cancerous. If they are, the cancer can spread to other parts of the body. Removing polyps early, before they become cancerous, can prevent it completely. A colonoscopy is a common screening test for colorectal cancer. While you’re mildly sedated, a doctor inserts a small flexible tube equipped with a camera into your colon. If she finds a polyp, she can often remove it right during the test. Another type of test is a flexible sigmoidoscopy, which looks into the lower part of the colon. If you’re at average risk, screening usually starts at age 50.
Proper screening won’t always prevent a disease, but it can often find a disease early enough to give you the best chance of overcoming it.

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