Taking Charge Today: A Woman’s Guide to Health Screening

What does it mean to be a healthy woman? Many experts say health is not merely the absence of disease or illness; instead, they assert that health is a lifestyle that encompasses physical, mental and social well-being.

But what about other factors, such as genetics, that can greatly affect your overall health? I’m susceptible to breast cancer because my mother had it.

And, of course, what about your schedule and habits and the impacts they have on your health? It was a busy day at work. so I’ll pick up something from Quickie Burger on the way home.

Despite the many challenges women face today, good health can be managed through vigilant preventive practices. Your family physician and obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN) are superb resources for managing your health and wellness.

Reproductive Health

Cancer of the cervix—the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina—is strongly associated with certain forms of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. In order to detect the potentially cancer-causing HPV as early as possible, women should have a Pap test (also called a Pap smear) and pelvic exam every one to three years after becoming sexually active or turning 21, whichever comes first.

“It’s important to keep in mind that a woman may have cervical cancer and not know it because she may not have any symptoms,” said Catherine Kim, MD, Simi Valley Hospital OB/GYN. “Pap smears and HPV testing are excellent ways to detect precancerous lesions of the cervix. Early treatment of these conditions can prevent cervical cancer formation.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in 2005 as many as 20 million men and women in the United States already had HPV. CDC research also indicates that the only way to protect yourself against HPV totally is to avoid any sexual activity that involves genital contact.

Heart Health

Did you know that nearly 39 percent of all women’s deaths in America occur from cardiovascular disease and that it ranks first among all disease categories in hospital discharges for women?

In light of such startling statistics, it is clear that women need to take aggressive steps to keep their heart health in check. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Blood pressure. Your physician should check your blood pressure at least every two years beginning at age 18. Blood pressure of 140/90 or higher is considered too high.

Cholesterol. Have your cholesterol checked regularly starting at age 45. If you are younger than 45 but smoke, have diabetes or high blood pressure, are overweight or have a family history of heart disease, talk with your physician about whether you should have your cholesterol checked sooner.

Diabetes. Your blood glucose level should be checked every three years starting at age 45, or earlier if you have symptoms of the disease. You should also be screened for diabetes if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Talk with your physician if you have a family history of diabetes, which is a significant contributing factor in developing the disease.

Obesity. Try to stay at a healthy weight with smart food choices and exercise. Your family physician is a great resource for helping you select a diet and exercise program that is best for you. Ask your physician to conduct a body mass index (BMI) test, which is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. You can also calculate your ideal weight and body fat level at Just click on “Check Your Health Stats.”

“In addition to regular risk-factor screenings, women can take preventive measures to protect themselves from heart disease,” said Bikram Soni, MD, Simi Valley Hospital cardiologist. “Eating more whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and limiting fatty foods is a good start. Avoiding processed foods altogether, or as much as possible, is also smart because these foods are usually high in sugar and loaded with trans fats. Starting an exercise routine is also key to maintaining a healthy weight and keeping the heart strong.

Breast Health

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends a clinical breast exam as part of a woman’s regular health checkup. This exam should be conducted about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women age 40 and older.

The ACS also recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40. Women with a higher risk of breast cancer should get an annual mammogram starting as early as age 35. Ask your physician about when you should start having regular mammograms and how often you should get them.

Colorectal Health

Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths among women. The good news is that early detection makes a tremendous—often lifesaving—difference in colorectal cancer outcomes. When the cancer is detected before it has spread, the five-year relative survival rate is 90 percent. Unfortunately, only 38 percent of colorectal cancers are discovered that early, in part because of the low percentage of people who get screened for the disease.

“Colorectal cancer and diseases of the anus are very curable if caught early,” said David Rosenfeld, MD, SVH colorectal surgeon. “It’s even more important to note that, with appropriate screening exams, colorectal cancer is actually preventable. The fact that many people avoid examination of the colorectal area—or even discussion of the subject—partly explains why the outlook for this disease is poor. Regular screenings dramatically increase your chances for early detection and prevention of colorectal cancer.”

The American Cancer Society recommends testing for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. Your doctor will help you decide what kind of test is best for you. Because your health and your family’s health history are factors in the disease, your doctor may suggest that you be tested for colorectal cancer before age 50.

More to Know

There is still more you can do to prevent illness and disease. Keep in mind the following screenings and preventive measures:

Flu shots. You should have a flu shot every year starting at age 50. If you are younger than 50, ask your doctor whether you need a flu shot. Remember to stay up-to-date on all of your immunizations.

Osteoporosis. Have a bone density test beginning at age 65 to screen for osteoporosis. If you are between the ages of 60 and 64 and weigh 154 pounds or less, talk with your doctor about being tested. You can also talk with your physician about whether calcium supplements are appropriate for you.

Depression. Your emotional health is as important as your physical health. If you feel “blue,” sad or hopeless for more than two weeks straight, or if you take little interest or pleasure in day-to-day activities, you may be depressed. Talk to your doctor about being tested.

Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases. You should be tested for chlamydia if you are age 25 or younger and are sexually active. If you are older, talk with your doctor about being tested for chlamydia, as well as other STDs.

The information provided in this article is not intended to be used for the diagnosis or treatment of a health problem or as a substitute for consulting a licensed health care professional.

It’s Time to Kick the Habit!

If you’re a smoker, the number-one step you can take to extend your life expectancy is to stop smoking. Your physician can guide you to resources that will help you kick the habit. Remember:

  • Pregnant women should never smoke.
  • There is no such thing as safe smoking. The death rate for heart disease is nearly three times higher among light smokers than among nonsmokers, and the risk is a bit higher for women than men.

Smoking dramatically increases your risk for lung cancer.

Fall 2007