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What medical screenings should women have throughout their life?

VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital OB/GYN shares the top medical concerns women should discuss with their providers.

A doctor speaks to a group of ladies in a classroom. Dr. Vega answers questions ladies have about health screenings.

By Kristy Fowler

It seems like with every age milestone comes another medical screening. Recommendations are constantly changing, making it difficult to stay on track.  How do we keep up with all these health and wellness tests? 

As part of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital’s commitment to improve the health of our community, we recently held a Community Out-Reach Education (CORE) program on this issue. Obstetrician and gynecologist Miguel Vega, M.D., addressed five areas for women to keep in mind. “The main thing to remember is to get an annual physical to make sure your doctor orders all the necessary screenings appropriate for you,” Vega said. “While an informed patient is instrumental in their care, leave all the complicated age ranges to us. We have required continuing education to keep up with the latest recommendations for each specialty.”

Breast cancer screenings at home and with a provider

CMH physicians don’t recommend monthly self-breast exams anymore because we found that our patients were becoming very anxious and were hyper focused on it. Instead, we recommend you occasionally check your breasts to make sure you’re aware of your baseline and then contact a doctor if you notice any major changes. Some changes that may be of concern include dimpling of the breast or nipple, lump or thickening of the breast, and clear or bloody nipple discharge. 

Mammograms should be completed on an annual basis from ages 40 to 75 on average. However, if a healthy, active 80-year-old is expected to live another decade, we might continue to check for breast cancer.

Exams for HPV and cervical cancer

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85% of the population will contract human papilloma virus (HPV) in their lifetime. Virginia Department of Health requires the HPV vaccine for students going into the seventh grade but allow a parental educational exemption while the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services only recommends it. 

Women between 21 to 65 years old should get a pelvic exam every year. A pap test is used to check for precancerous and cancerous cells on a three or five-year basis as indicated by the doctor, because it varies per person depending on age and medical history.

Difficulties in ovarian cancer detection

The American Cancer Society states only about 20% of ovarian cancer is found at an early stage. Ovarian cancer has a low survival rate due to several factors. Unfortunately, there is no screening for ovarian cancer. It often goes undetected and by the time it is found, it is too late for effective treatment to work. If ovarian cancer runs in your family, you may get genetic testing to determine your risk.

Checking for colon cancer

A colonoscopy is now required for people ages 45 to 75 on average, or earlier with a family history. If the test results come back negative, you can wait 10 years before testing again. If a polyp, an extra piece of tissue that may turn into cancer, is found and a biopsy is completed, you may have to undergo another colonoscopy in 3 to 5 years.

You’ve probably heard about other alternative tests you can order. While these may be helpful in some instances, they are not as reliable as a colonoscopy and do not serve as a replacement test.

Broken bones and fractures

The health and strength of your bones is impacted by how much estrogen is being produced in your body.  When your ovaries don’t produce estrogen after menopause, you begin to lose bone density. You can prevent broken bones by increasing your calcium intake. While supplements may be taken, there is no evidence they help. The best way your body can absorb extra calcium and Vitamin D by eating yogurt, cereal and drinking milk.
A bone density scan is recommended for women at 65 years old and every three years afterward. The scan shows your T-score, which measures the thickness of bone compared to your age when your bones were likely the strongest. If your T-score is a negative 2.5 or less, you may be diagnosed with osteoporosis, a condition in which the bone mass decreases, making you more susceptible to broken bones. Medications can be prescribed to combat osteoporosis.

Stay up to date with annual check-ups

One way to maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep track of all these tests is to schedule a routine physical exam with your primary care provider. During this appointment, your physician will order extra tests and screenings needed.

Primary care physicians, gynecologists, gastroenterologists and urologists are available in the C.A.R.E. Building next to CMH in South Hill, Virginia. Call (434) 584-2773 to make an appointment today or visit VCUHealth.org/CMH for more information on our services.

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