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 Get regular mammograms and ultrasounds
Mammograms and ultrasounds are the most common forms of imaging modalities used to screen for breast cancer worldwide. Both methods have their own distinct purposes, advantages and limitations.
“They produce very different images and provide different information, and are therefore not interchangeable,” explains specialist breast cancer surgeon DR ANTHONY TANG of The Breast Clinic. “But, if cost is a concern, and only one modality can be chosen, then mammogram is by far the better screening tool,” he says.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is another imaging modality that’s used in certain circumstances; for example, in younger women at higher risk of breast cancer.
But, regardless of the method you choose for your health check, one thing’s for sure: getting screened is a must, as early detection is key. Dr Tang recommends starting yearly screenings from the age of 40, and once every two years from the age of 50.
“Unfortunately, one in 12 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime, and we cannot predict who will get it,” he says. “Because early breast cancer doesn’t produce any symptoms, a woman who has it in the early stages will not feel any pain and will not be able to feel a lump. Hence, all women, whether they have any symptoms or not, should start getting mammograms annually from the age of 40.
#2 Do monthly self, health checks
Not only should women start going for medical breast examinations (mammogram and/or ultrasound), but it’s crucial to do monthly self-checks, too, says breast surgeon DR GEORGETTE CHAN.
“This 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
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), to prevent cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can present with symptoms of pain or bleeding during intercourse, or irregular vaginal bleeding; however, in many cases, there can be no symptoms. Therefore, it’s crucial for women to undergo regular pap smear tests as part of their health checks, says DR NANDINI SHAH of International Medical Clinic (IMC). The test involves collecting a sample of cells from the cervix during a routine pelvic examination. 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.
Dr Shah says a test for human papilloma virus (HPV) may also be recommended by your doctor.
“There are multiple strains of HPV, which 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 cervical cancer. Screening for the presence of HPV can help to determine a patient’s risk for the development of abnormal cell changes.”
Treatment for an abnormal Pap smear result is discussed with one’s health care provider, she says.
“Management options largely depend on whether cell changes are mild, moderate or severe. In many cases, mild changes usually require a period of observation, as the abnormal cells can revert back to normal on their own. In these instances, a repeat Pap smear would be done after a short interval period. More severe changes may require a gynaecology referral for further investigation and, in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed.”
#4 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!”
#5 Exercise regularly
The benefits of staying active are abundant, from weight management to heart health, to supporting a strong immune system. “A regular exercise routine of 30 to 60 minutes a day can boost immunity by increasing the circulation of viruskilling cells,” says ALY KHAIRUDDIN, owner of FitNut Loft, a boutique fitness studio that helps women in their 40’s and 50’s reverse the effects of ageing and transform into stronger, confident women.
As a STOTT-Pilates certified instructor and certified personal trainer, she suggests walking every day for 30 minutes and doing a strength-based workout every other day. In fact, that’s how Aly herself regained strength after battling breast cancer. Left weakened after cancer treatment, she was determined to regain her strength and lose the weight she’d gained during treatment – and she did, by changing her exercise and eating habits.
Aimed at helping other women to feel this sense of empowerment too, FitNut Loft combines weight and strength training with Pilates, mindfulness and nutrition. Aly and her team are all about helping women to ditch the dieting mentality for good, get stronger, have their clothes fit better, sleep better, and have more energy through nutritious eating and exercise. The studio offers personal training, 12-week body transformations and six small group training classes, as well as virtual classes.
This article first appeared in the October 2020 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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