From regular health checks to nutrition and exercise, here are five things women can do to maximise their health including mammograms, pap smears and self-checks.
#1 Go for regular breast cancer screening
Breast cancer screening is among the most important health checks for women to prioritise, and there are many screening tools available.
Mammograms are the most widely used tool for breast cancer screening worldwide. And, with recent developments in the field, there’s now a newer type of mammogram available: 3D mammograms. Although more costly than 2D mammograms, 3D mammograms have a higher accuracy of detection for smaller cancers, and can be a particularly useful tool for patients who have a high risk of developing breast cancer, says DR TRISHA UPADHYAYA of Osler Health International.
Other diagnostic tests such as breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasounds may also be useful for women in detecting breast cancer, she says.
“Breast MRI is often used in conjunction with mammograms for women who are at higher risk of getting breast cancer. Similarly, a breast ultrasound on its own is not very useful, but is often used in conjunction with mammogram if an abnormality has been found on a mammogram.”
But, regardless of the method you choose for your health check, getting screened is important, as early detection is key. It’s recommended that women aged 50 years and above go for breast cancer screening every two years. Dr Trisha even recommends that women between the ages of 40 and 49 consider starting breast cancer screening.
“They should have a thorough discussion with their doctor, assessing their risk factors and the benefits and limitations of screening,” she says. “If women between the ages of 40 and 49 do decide to undergo breast cancer screening, then this is usually recommended to be performed annually.”
Some women may have certain risk factors that put them in a higher risk category of developing breast cancer, such as familial history, or known genetic or medical conditions that may predispose them to developing cancer. For these women, Dr Trisha says screening should be started at an earlier age, after a detailed discussion with their doctor.
#2 Do monthly self-health checks
In addition to going for regular medical breast examinations, you’ll want to add monthly self-checks to your priority list, says breast surgeon DR GEORGETTE CHAN. Luckily, it’s an important health check that can be done right in your own home.
“This health check is very important because it allows us to detect even subtle changes – things like lumps, nipple retraction or skin dimpling,” she says. “Young women should ideally start doing this in their twenties to become familiar with how their own breasts feel. Seven to ten days after the start of your menses is the best time to do it, because that’s when the breasts are least sensitive.” If you do find a lump during a self-exam, don’t panic: 90 percent of lumps detected are benign, says Dr Chan. “If you find one while you’re close to your menstrual period, it could be due to temporary hormonal changes. So, I suggest waiting until after your period to see if it’s still there. If it is, go to see your GP or a breast specialist,” she advises.
#3 Schedule a Pap smear
Cervical cancer screening is among the most important health checks for women. Also known as a cervical smear, a Pap smear test is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix (the entrance to the uterus). It is used detect early pre-cancerous cells with the aim of preventing cervical cancer, explains DR HINA KADWANI of International Medical Clinic (IMC) Jelita.
“Cervical cancer can present with symptoms of pain or bleeding during intercourse or irregular vaginal bleeding in between periods. However, in some cases, there may be no symptoms. Therefore, it’s crucial for women to undergo regular Pap smears as part of their health checks.”
The test can be easily done in a clinic consultation and involves collecting a sample of cells from the cervix during a routine pelvic examination. First, an instrument called a speculum is inserted into the vagina, allowing for a clear view of the cervix. Once the speculum is inserted, a brush is used to take a sample of cells from the cervix. This may feel a little strange; however, it only takes a few minutes to complete and is not usually painful.
Dr Kadwani says there is now a concurrent test for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that is routinely recommended. This can be done on the same sample of cervical cells already taken; nothing further needs to be done. The cells are then also checked for the presence of HPV.
“Multiple strains of HPV can affect different parts of the body, including the skin, mouth, throat and genitals. Certain HPV strains are deemed high risk and are linked to the development of abnormal cells, which can lead to cervical cancer,” she says. “Screening for the presence of HPV can help determine a patient’s risk for developing abnormal cell changes. Results for the HPV test will often report if you are positive for HPV and if you are positive for a high-risk strain.”
For normal results, Dr Kadwani says the interval period for repeat Pap smears is now determined by the patient’s HPV status (positive or negative); this decision can be made with your healthcare provider.
For abnormal Pap smear results, she says management options depend on the extent of cell changes found. “Mild changes require observation initially, followed up by a repeat Pap smear at a shorter interval. Moderate to severe changes may require a gynaecology referral for further investigation and, in some instances, removal of the abnormal cells.”
#4 If you’re planning a pregnancy… get a preconception health check
“While getting pregnant within a year of trying seems to be relatively easy for up to 85 percent of couples under the age of 35, modern day society comes with its own set of issues and complexities that would be best addressed earlier in the conception process rather than later,” says obstetrician-gynaecologist DR DHARSHINI GOPALAKRISHNAKONE.
A preconception consultation is something she encourages all couples to do prior to getting pregnant. The purpose is to see if there are any major underlying health issues that could affect the mother during pregnancy.
“We test for important disorders such as thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, anaemia or thalassemia, and adequate immunity from infections that can affect a pregnancy – for instance, rubella and chicken pox, or blood borne infections,” says Dr Dharsh.
“During the consultation, we also gauge a woman’s basic health – everything from blood pressure and nutrition to family history and underlying medical conditions that may need further assessment. We can also discuss modification of medications into safer drugs for pregnancy prior to conceiving.”
Additionally, she says a basic gynae scan may be done to ensure that there are no uterine masses such as fibroids or any ovarian cysts that can affect conception or pregnancy itself. “If ovarian growths are identified, early surgical intervention can be carried out and, after adequate uterine rest for healing, the couple can happily try to conceive again with no worries!”
Additional tests to identify fertility problems
There are other types of tests that can be done to identify any major issues that can affect fertility. Dr Dharsh says these tests are especially recommended for couples who:
- are above the age of 35 and are trying to conceive;
- are under the age of 35 and have been trying to conceive for a while without any success; or
- are concerned about their fertility.
Since one of the main issues of fertility has to do with egg count and the ability to ovulate, carrying out a basic female hormone test to see the exact egg count is key. It helps determine if the patient has adequate healthy egg reserves to keep trying naturally or if any intervention is needed, says Dr Dharsh.
Another factor that can affect fertility is blockage in the fallopian tubes. Therefore, your doctor may recommend an HSG test – an x-ray test to assess whether the fallopian tubes are blocked.
“If only one tube is blocked, natural conception is still absolutely possible. Occasionally, we do find patients where both tubes are blocked. But if we identify this early in the process, these blockages can be addressed immediately and fertility intervention can start early on.”
#5 Make healthier diet choices
Food-related allergies, coeliac disease and gastrointestinal problems have substantially increased in recent years. According to gastroenterologist DR ANDREA RAJNAKOVA, this increase could be linked to factors such as dietary changes, gluten-rich dietary patterns, processed foods, food additives and changes in microbiota. That’s why it’s important to get in all the valuable nutrients you can, avoiding artificial processing, artificial sweeteners, colouring and flavouring, additives, chemicals, too much sugar and saturated fat.
So, what are some healthier choices? “These could include healthy meals divided into three small servings per day, even if we follow the popular intermittent fasting pattern diet. Each meal should contain small amounts of complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, so plenty of vegetables in any form, and some fruit, nuts and seeds,” says Dr Rajnakova. “Hydration is very important, too. People often have too many sweetened drinks and diet sodas, which introduce extra sugar, colouring, artificial flavouring and sweeteners. It’s better to have either water or herbal caffeine-free teas or infusions.”
She adds, “Food selection must be sustainable and for the long term. There’s no point in dieting for a few weeks or months and then returning to your original eating habits. That will only create a yo-yo effect, not just in weight, but in health as a whole.”
People are able to comply with healthy diets only when they feel satisfaction from the foods they take in. “Starvation is the biggest enemy of healthy diet and lifestyle. It never brings good results!”
Like this? Read more at our Health & Fitness section.
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