Getting Back on Track With Women’s Health Screenings

By Claudia Elliott

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives. Among the disruptions — during the lockdown, millions of women skipped important health screenings, according to research by the American Cancer Society.

If you got off track — or just want to review recommended screenings — don’t beat yourself up, but do take steps to prioritize your health.

Recommendations from some leading health organizations can give you an idea of what you need to get scheduled. It’s also important for women to know that risk factors may mean beginning some screenings at a younger age or having them more often than women without the same risk factors.

Heart health screening

According to the American Heart Association, blood pressure is one of the most important screenings because high blood pressure greatly increases your risk of heart disease and stroke — and it usually has no symptoms.

If your blood pressure is below 120/80, the AHA advises that you get it checked at least once every two years, starting at age 20. If your blood pressure is higher, your doctor may want to check it more often.

Also starting at age 20 the heart association suggests having a fasting lipoprotein profile taken every four to six years. This is a blood test that lets you know your numbers for LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol. Your doctor may want to check your cholesterol more often if you have risk factors or are over age 40.

Your weight, waist circumference and BMI (body mass index) may also be part of a cardiac screening, along with a discussion about smoking, physical activity and diet.

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And because diabetes increases the risk of heart disease by about four times in women, your doctor may also want you to take a fasting plasma glucose test. The American Diabetes Association recommends that everyone test for risk of future diabetes and prediabetes beginning at age 45 and every three years thereafter if the test is normal.

Cancer screenings

The American Cancer Society offers advice about screening for a number of types of cancer including two of particular concern to women — cervical cancer and breast cancer.

According to the ACS, cervical cancer screening should start at age 25 and continue to age 65 and even people who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow the screening recommendations for their age groups. A PAP test every three years or a primary HPV (human papillomavirus) test every five years are among the options.

The ACS does not recommend annual breast cancer screening with a mammogram before age 40. The cancer society states that women between 40 and 44 should have the option to start annual mammograms if they desire. Women ages 45 to 54 should get a mammogram annually and women 55 and over can continue annually or switch to every two years.

“Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer,” according to the ACS website.

Well-woman exams

Many screenings can be accomplished during a well-woman exam, according to Dr. Kyle Heber, a board-certified internal medicine physician affiliated with Adventist Health Bakersfield.

“If a woman has delayed her routine cancer screenings, whether she is pre-menopausal or post-menopausal, the best next step is to simply schedule a well-woman exam with either her primary care physician or gynecologist,” Dr. Heber said.

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“If she is in fact due for an updated Pap smear, then it can be done by the provider at that visit and the appropriate imaging study for her breast cancer screening can be ordered at the same time and followed up at a subsequent visit,” he said.

If a woman strongly prefers to try and consolidate everything into a single visit, Dr. Heber suggests she call her provider’s office ahead of time to request an order for her routine mammogram so she can complete it and have the results available for review at the visit.

Bakersfield Heart Hospital offerings

Cancer screenings are important, but according to the Women’s Heart Center at Bakersfield Heart Hospital, many women don’t realize that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States.

“One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, but only one in 40 will die of it,” the Bakersfield Heart Hospital reports on its website. “One in every three women will die of coronary artery disease or heart attack. One-third of these heart attacks will go undetected. More than one out of five women will have some form of cardiovascular disease.”

Fortunately, the hospital offers two easy ways for women to get in touch with their heart health.

You’ll find a free heart health assessment that you can complete yourself online at bit.ly/3QumMh7.

Or you can sign up for a health screening that includes a blood pressure test, cholesterol screening, cardiac risk assessment, one-on-one consultation with a heart health expert and a heart disease risk survey and personalized report you can take to your primary care doctor or a cardiologist, if appropriate. A $25 fee — not reimbursable by most insurance plans — is charged for this service, which you can schedule by calling 661-316-6000 or online at bit.ly/3zBHd4W.

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Dignity Health Women’s Center

Dignity Health Women’s Center – Southwest also provides a range of health screenings for women including an online assessment of risk factors for bladder control issues (dignityhlth.org/3Q7XqWp). Dignity Health also offers health screenings at various locations in Bakersfield. Check out the schedule online at dignityhlth.org/3QsUiEp or call 661-861-0852.

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