OK, I get it. Going to the doctor isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a good time. Doctor visits can be embarrassing, anxiety-provoking, and you probably have better things to do with your time than sitting in a office waiting room for an hour before you see a doctor. Besides, you might think, I’m young and healthy and only need to go to the doctor if I’m sick. Right? Well, maybe not. The answer isn’t “one size fits all.” It depends on your risk factors for disease; family history, smoking, being overweight, etc. The decision should be made based on your personal risk. If you have a strong family history of breast, ovarian, or colon cancer, it would make sense to see a doctor while you’re young to map out a screening plan. You might need to start screenings much sooner than your 40s and 50s.
However, regular check-ups can find problems BEFORE they start, as well as screen for diseases or conditions like high blood pressure, sexually transmitted infections, diabetes, and yes, even cancer.
Here’s a list of recommended screenings for women, by decade:
According to Duke University, if you’re in your 20s, don’t smoke, aren’t at high risk for diseases and aren’t on prescription meds, you can see your doctor every few years. Women should begin pap smears at age 21 and then discuss with their doctors how often to be screened. Incidence of skin cancer is also growing among women in their 20s, so getting an annual full-body skin check is never a bad idea, especially if you use tanning booths or spend a lot of time in the sun (melanoma is a serious, serious cancer if not detected early). Primary care doctors can scan your body and refer you to a dermatologist if they see any suspicious moles or spots. It’s probably not a bad idea to get a baseline on your blood glucose and cholesterol levels at least once during your 20s.
Women in their 30s should see their doctor for a routine check-up every year or two. They should have a clinical breast exam (manual exam performed by a doctor) every year to every other year. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, beginning at age 30, women can switch to a pap smear every three years, or get a pap and combination HPV test every five years. However, my gynecologist recommends that as long as insurance covers annual pap smears, it should be done every year. Because I’m such a hypochondriac, I get a pap smear every May during my annual physical. For me, it gives me peace of mind to have a pap, as well as a clinic breast exam and skin check, every year. Women in their 30s should also get cholesterol, blood glucose and other routine blood tests done every few years (unless they have symptoms).
Things really get exciting when you hit this decade. Screenings suddenly seem more real. Pap smears are recommended every three to five years, same as for women in their 30s. I just turned 40, and a few days after my birthday, I had a mammogram. I was terrified; not so much because of the test itself (it doesn’t hurt, just some slight discomfort from the compression), but of the results. Luckily, the nurse called later that day and all is well. But it’s at this age when it’s to begin having annual mammograms. There has been some controversy about when women should start having them, however. Some studies have suggested that screening before 50 results in too many false positives (when a test shows you have cancer when you really don’t and leads to many unnecessary tests and procedures), and doesn’t save many lives. The American Cancer Society (and my gynecologist) still recommend beginning at age 40.
In addition to mammograms, women should see a doctor every year for an annual physical, because the risk for things like diabetes and high blood pressure also increase with age. My primary care doctor told me to come in every year once I hit 40 for a physical, as well as to have all my blood labs done.
Once you get into your 50s (I know, that seems AGES away), you’ll need to see your doc every year, continue with yearly mammos and, in addition to that, you get the pleasure of beginning colon cancer screening! The “gold standard” is a colonoscopy, which is needed every 10 years.
Don’t forget about the dentist! It’s recommended that everyone get a check up and professional cleaning twice a year. I know that it’s not always possible if you don’t have dental insurance. If you don’t, you might be able to work out a lower rate and payment plan with your dentist and go at least once a year.
And flu season is almost here! It’s recommended that adults get a vaccine every year. These are also somewhat controversial, as their efficacy varies from year to year. I was against them for several years until my doctor convinced me to get one for me and my kids. Well, I did, and none of us have had the flu since. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I’d like to believe the shot is working.