Celebrate Your Health by Scheduling a Wellness Appointment

July 7, 2016

There is nothing we care about more than helping women understand the best ways to take care of their bodies. For too long, women have been given the short end of the stick in medicine, relying on information that fails to take their bodies into account.

For instance, despite the fact that heart disease kills more women than men, research is often male-focused. In fact, researchers didn’t discover that heart disease affects a woman’s body differently than a man’s until 2001. Other diseases such as ovarian cancer have seen little advancement over the past 30 years, despite it being the most deadly form of cancer specific to the female reproductive system.

It’s time to take charge of your own health. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is stay up-to-date on your physical exams.

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You’ve probably heard that the recommended guidelines for Pap smears have changed, and it’s no longer necessary to get one every year. But don’t let that make you get lax with other checkups — the single most important thing that every woman can do for her health is to make sure that she gets her annual wellness exam.

How often you actually need a Pap smear depends on several factors, and your healthcare provider is the best person to help you decide what that means for you. But the wellness exam provides much more than just a screening for one illness — it’s the best way for both you and your doctor to know the current state of your body and health. And it’s through accurate, up-to-date knowledge that we are empowered to do the best for our well-being.

Wellness Exam 101

If you aren’t familiar with the wellness exam procedure, it can seem overwhelming. But the best way to prioritize your health is by educating yourself about your body — so take the plunge and schedule an appointment.

Here’s what you can expect to happen during your wellness exam:

1. A discussion about your family health history. Your exam will begin with your doctor asking you questions about your family history and lifestyle. In order to provide you with the best care, she must have a thorough understanding of your medical history. Be prepared to answer questions that might seem like prying anywhere else, and be honest with your responses.

2. General exam. The physical exam will start with your doctor listening to your heart and lungs, taking your blood pressure, and recording other measurements. It’s good practice for the doctor to get a holistic picture of your body.

3. Breast exam. When she has finished the general exam, your doctor will do a manual breast exam, feeling for lumps or abnormalities, and check the lymph nodes around your armpits. Ideally, you should be doing your own monthly self-exam. If you have any questions about how to do self-exams, this is a great time to ask your doctor.

4. Pelvic exam. Your doctor will begin by examining the exterior parts of your vagina, making sure that everything looks healthy and there are no abnormalities. Then, she will insert the speculum in order to view your cervix, which is the lower part of your uterus.

If you’re getting a Pap smear, this is when your doctor will gently scrape your cervix to collect cells — which will later be examined under a microscope. After the speculum, your doctor will conduct a bimanual exam; she will insert two fingers into your vagina and place her other hand on your lower abdomen. This allows the doctor to feel your internal organs and make sure everything is in good condition.

Your exam may also include a rectal vaginal exam, where your doctor inserts one finger through the anus into the rectum so she can feel what’s between the vagina and the rectum as well as what’s behind the uterus. Although this exam can seem uncomfortable, it’s very important because your fallopian tubes and ovaries move around and can be behind your uterus.

What More Can You Do?

While the typical women’s wellness exam screens for several important medical issues — including cervical cancer if you get a Pap smear — there are still several diseases it does not screen for.

The most common form of gynecologic cancer, endometrial cancer, is not easily caught during a wellness exam, but it has obvious symptoms like postmenopausal bleeding. There is also no effective screening for ovarian cancer, and though there are warning signs, they can be hard to catch. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or general concerns about the illness, it’s a great idea to discuss them with your doctor during your wellness exam.

Remember, although your annual wellness exam is a vital part of taking care of yourself, maintaining good health means taking what you learn from your doctor and applying it to your life. Make sure you’re prioritizing your health this year. After all, you’ve only got one life to live.