My mother is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist, which of course led
to some interesting dinner conversations. It also meant that I was
the only one of my female friends who didn’t vilify our annual
women’s health appointments. I guess the jokes about ice cold
stirrups and duck-billed speculums over spaghetti and garlic bread
helped me feel comfortable. So, in turn, I hope to pass on that
comfort and impress upon you the importance of that “dreaded
First of all, there’s no squirming out of this one. The American
Cancer Society recommends women begin yearly Pap tests at age 18 or
when they become sexually active, whichever occurs earlier. But the
Pap test is just one aspect of your exam. The doctor or nurse
practitioner will screen you for breast cancer, cervical cancer,
ovarian cancer, and sexually transmitted infections as well as
prescribe birth control, should you want it. According to the ACS,
the best defense for these “female” cancers is early detection.
A Pap test detects changes in the cervix that can be treated
before they become cancerous. Cervical cancer is now a relatively
rare cancer in the United States not because abnormalities are rare
but because they are detected and treated early. The ACS reports
that your risk of cervical cancer is higher if you or your partner
have had multiple sexual partners, you have other STIs such as
genital warts, chlamydia, or gonorrhea, and if you smoke.
The STI screening is vital because many STIs are asymptomatic in
women. According to the Center for Disease Control, if left
untreated, what could have disappeared with a dose of antibiotics
can turn into a monumental health problem. Furthermore, certain
infections are on the rise among young adults, but that is a story
for another week.
So, what exactly goes on behind those doors? Yes, you do have to
get undressed, put your feet in the stirrups, and scoot your bum
toward the edge of the exam table. Your practitioner will use a
speculum, examine your cervix, and harvest cells for the STI and
Pap tests. This doesn’t have to be painful. The key is relaxation.
The more tense you are the more uncomfortable the procedure. So
breathe, unclench your muscles, and relax.
Comfort and relaxation go hand in hand. So what can you do to
make yourself more comfortable? Well, here’s a novel concept: the
practitioner is there to take care of you. Why not ask her to
explain what she’s doing and why, each step of the way. You can
even watch if you want with the help of a mirror. It’s amazing how
few women have actually seen their own cervix!
The rest of the exam consists of the more germane breast exam
and abdominal palpitations to feel the uterus and ovaries. The Tang
Center uses only female nurse practitioners, and your health
insurance, SHIP or otherwise covers the visit. Call 510-642-2000
for an appointment. For more information, check out the Health Fair
on Oct. 7.