Ladies, when was the last time you consulted with your family physician or OB-GYN for a routine checkup? Drop your COVID excuses already. It’s time to make yourself and your health a priority.
You may be exercising regularly, trying to eat right, and taking time off to re-calibrate once in a while. But are you also getting the health screenings that every woman should have?
According to Dr. Carla Espina-Castro, OB-GYN at Makati Medical Center, the brutal demands of ambitious careers, putting their family’s needs first, and money matters are just some of the reasons why most women put themselves at the end of their priority list.
“How will you convince a mom of five to have, say a pap smear, when she’s not feeling anything wrong with her body?,” she notes. “Or when there’s not enough to even put food on the table?”
What we want them to realize, Dr. Castro adds, is that putting their health on the side could cost them more—even their own lives—in the future.
Screening tests are important because these can spot illnesses even before the symptoms manifest. And so, getting yourself checked early can help you better manage your health and prevent the onset of gynecologic diseases, as well as lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancer.
Which screening tests you may need depends on your age, family history, your own health history, and other risk factors.
Dr. Castro shares the recommended health screenings during your teen years and beyond.
Breast cancer screening (mammogram and sonomammogram)
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that breast cancer screening should start at 25 years old with a clinical breast examination.
Those women with palpable breast masses are advised to undergo a sonomammogram or breast ultrasound to confirm the clinical findings, and appropriate management can be then be done.
The Philippine College of Surgeons’ guidelines for breast cancer screening used to be at 40 years old. “Now, it’s 30,” says Dr. Castro.
Mammogram is still the gold standard for breast cancer screening.
“It is paired with a sonomammogram to further characterize cysts, especially in women with dense breasts. It gives a more descriptive picture of the cysts,” she explains.
According to Dr. Castro, breast cysts are categorized by BI-RADS (Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System). It is a numerical scale ranging from 0 to 6 that is used in mammogram and sonomammogram.
“A BI-RADS number reveals if a cyst is most likely benign or potentially abnormal,” she explains.
The recommended age and frequency for a mammogram can vary. Some risk factors, like family history of breast cancer, should make you more mindful about getting a mammogram.
If you’re experiencing common symptoms and discomfort in the breast, it’s best to consult with your gynecologist as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer screening
Pap smear detects early signs of cervical cancer. “For those who are sexually active, a routine pap smear is recommended for those aged 25 and up,” prescribes Dr. Castro. “Or three years after a woman becomes sexually active.”
While certain types of cervical cancer are hereditary, the two most common types of cervical cancer—squamous cell and adenocarcinoma—are not hereditary. The main cause of cervical cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is transmitted sexually.
“Risk factors include exposure to the virus through early sexual encounter, multiple sexual partners, not getting yourself checked, to name a few” she adds.
According to Dr. Castro, well-informed moms would bring their daughters (as young as 12 years old) to her clinic for HPV vaccines.
“HPV vaccines can be given to girls as young as nine years old (two doses for girls nine to 14). Three doses will be given to those 15 and up,” she says. “Some would ask me to prescribe birth control pills for their teenage daughters.”
These are recommended for women of reproductive age. However, any female patient like an adolescent with an enlarged abdomen can also have an ultrasound done. There are different kinds of ultrasound procedures to check on the uterus and ovaries.
“Those who are sexually active can have a transvaginal ultrasound to see if there is any abnormality in the uterus, the lining of the uterus, ovaries, and cervix,” she points out. It can also address infertility issues.
Those who haven’t had sexual contact, but are concerned,—say with their cycle irregularity—or those who have painful periods, or enlarging abdomen can have a transrectal scan or a transabodominal scan.
“Transrectal ultrasound can detect cysts, masses, or growths on your reproductive organs,” explains Dr. Castro. “It is as effective as transvaginal ultrasound for the detection of PCOS in patients who haven’t had sexual contact.”
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Again, sexual health screenings should begin as soon as you become sexually active. “Most STIs don’t have symptoms,” says Dr. Castro. “You can pass it to your partner or, if pregnant, to an unborn child.”
Some STIs can be tested through simple blood work or a urine test. “Others through culturing secretion from the vagina or open sore on the genital area,” she explains.
Discussing STIs and possible complications with your OBGYN is important, even if you’re not sexually active.
Tests for women aren't only limited to those mentioned above. Dr. Castro also recommended the following tests as part of routine checkup:
- Complete blood count (CBC). It is used to look at your overall health and find a wide range of conditions including anemia.
- Urinalysis. It is a simple test that can help detect infections or kidney problems. It can also help serious diseases in the early stages like kidney disease, diabetes, or liver disease.
- Blood pressure and cholesterol. High blood pressure increases your risk for serious health problems like stroke and heart attack. Blood pressure check is routinely done around 40 years old and up but can be done earlier in patients with a strong family history of hypertension and those who are overweight or are obese.
“You should start getting your blood pressure checked regularly to help your healthcare team diagnose any health problems early,” advises Dr. Castro.
According to the amiable doctor, cardiovascular diseases usually have no warning signs or symptoms. This is why it’s so important to keep your heart health in check.
“Sometimes, people will only experience symptoms like severe headache, chest pains, nausea and vomiting when their blood pressure is very high (usually 160/90or higher),” she explains. When your blood pressure registers at 130/80 on two different occasions, better see a cardiologist.
Since high blood pressure and cholesterol go hand in hand, a cholesterol checkup should also be done to assess your risk for cardiovascular diseases.
- Diabetes screening. Get screened for diabetes starting at age 35 and then repeat every three years if you have no risk factors for diabetes. Screening may need to start earlier and can be repeated more often if you have other risk factors. “Screening for diabetes should be done if you are planning to become pregnant, you are overweight, and have other risk factors such as high blood pressure,” recommends Dr. Castro.
- Eye exam. If you have vision problems, have an eye exam every two years or more often if recommended by your doctor. “You should have an eye exam that includes an examination of your retina (back of your eye) at least every year if you have diabetes,” says Dr. Castro.
- Blood chemistry. It gives important information about how well a person’s kidneys, liver, and other organs are working.
“An ambitious career and putting your family’s needs first aren’t good enough reasons not to prioritize your health,” says Dr. Castro.
The best gift you can give to your family—and yourself—is a healthy you. So, take charge of your health now!