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While you’re at it, take the time to learn more about health issues of special concern to women and what you can do to help prevent them. Preventive care is an important part of living a long, healthy life.
Planning your health care appointments now can help you make your own health a priority. Taking care of your family is important, but keeping up with your own health is critical. Start with your annual well-woman visit.
Well-woman checkups are a part of preventive care. These visits are separate from any other visit for sickness or injury. A well-woman visit is a chance to focus on your overall health and wellness. It allows you to keep track of your health habits and history, get a complete physical exam and work with your doctor to set health goals.
These visits may include:
There are health issues that affect women differently than men or only affect women.
When it comes to women’s health, a lot of attention is given to breast cancer. But heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. It is deadlier to women than all forms of cancer combined.
What can you do to help prevent heart disease? There are several lifestyle choices that impact your heart health. To lower your risk, maintain a healthy weight, blood pressure and don’t smoke. And eating a healthy diet, reducing stress and getting enough activity are all important for lowering your risk.
Diet: In addition to helping prevent a heart attack or stroke, the right food choices can help you manage your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. To make your diet more heart-healthy:
Exercise: Being physically active is an important part of improving your cardiovascular fitness. How much exercise do you need? Most adults should aim for at least a total of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities per week.
Get some ideas and inspiration to help you get going from the American Heart Association.
Stress: Ongoing stress can cause physical problems, like high blood pressure, that negatively impact cardiovascular health, especially for those who may already be at risk. In addition, some people turn to habits that can lead to heart problems, such as smoking and overeating, during difficult times.
To reduce stress levels, try learning methods to better cope with stress, like breathing techniques, regularly taking time to relax, or changing negative thinking patterns into more positive ones. Getting enough sleep and exercise can also help improve heart health — and overall health, too.
About 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer sometime during their lives. Women who have a personal history of breast disease or a strong family history of breast cancer can face a higher risk for the disease.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. According to the American Cancer Society, “Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Most women who have one or more breast cancer risk factors never develop the disease, while many women with breast cancer have no apparent risk factors (other than being a woman and growing older).”
About 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. These types of cases occur even if you think you're relative low-risk, get screened regardless.
So it’s important for everyone to get the recommended screenings. Mammograms can help find breast cancer early, when treatments are more likely to be successful. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for breast cancer and the screening plan that is best for you.
Cervical cancer often has no symptoms, but warning signs can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, spotting, or discharge and bleeding after sex. Signs of advanced cases include pain, problems urinating and swollen legs.
The good news is that cervical cancer is mainly preventable by getting a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, which is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, and early recognition of cervical cancer with Pap and HPV testing. The HPV vaccine prevents against the several types of HPV that cause cervical and vulvar cancers, plus genital warts. Talk with your doctor to learn more about testing and vaccination.
The Pap test, or Pap smear, finds cell changes on the cervix that could become cancer if they’re not treated. The HPV test is used alone or with a Pap test and looks for the human papillomavirus, which can trigger these cell changes.
Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. Ovarian cancer is often called the “silent killer” because more than 70 percent of women are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread.
Why? Early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. And advanced-stage ovarian cancer still may cause few symptoms and is more challenging to treat. Additionally, the symptoms tend to be non-specific, like bloating, abdominal pain and various gut issues that are often mistaken for more common conditions, such as constipation or irritable bowel.
The good news: nearly all the cases of this cancer that are caught early can be treated successfully. However, screening tests, including pelvic exams, ultrasound and blood tests, have proved unreliable. So it’s important to know if you might be at risk for ovarian cancer.
Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. The presence and frequency of these symptoms may help detect ovarian cancer three to six months earlier than current methods. That time may be lifesaving.
Originally published January 27, 2016; Revised 2019
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