**Disclaimer** This post covers sensitive medical and wellness related topics involving breast cancer and preventative reproductive screenings. If you feel uncomfortable discussing or reading about these topics, please skip this post. I won’t be offended because I know you’ll be back! Additionally, I am NOT a medical professional. I am simply a patient giving my opinion on how to be proactive with women’s health issues. Please consult your own physician with any individual medical questions or concerns.
If you’re a regular Orangespoken reader, then you know that I lost my mom to breast cancer back in April of 2012 after a year long fight. Today I had an appointment to meet with my OB/GYN for my yearly well woman checkup; the first since her passing. My priorities were to get my annual screening and to discuss my own breast cancer prevention plan.
I had been dreading this conversation. Mostly because of this ridiculous genetic coding that my family carries that I’ve tried to overcome throughout the years. You see, many members of my family have the “no news is good news” mentality, and would even go so far as to not even visit the doctor for fear of facing the worst. So of course, DNA-engrained worry is a hard thing to shush, but I knew that with my mom’s passing from stage 4 metastatic triple negative carcinoma (the worst case scenario as far as breast cancers are concerned), that I would now be high risk and would need to take a proactive approach to my own prevention, even if it means having a scary and uncomfortable conversation with my OB/GYN.
I’m 33 years old, and have been going to this particular doctor since around the age of 20. Before my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had many reproductive issues and eventually had to endure a full hysterectomy when I was younger. So I have been exposed to the importance of reproductive health for a while now, and have never missed my yearly exam. However, I find it shocking when I hear about other women, my age (and sometimes older!) who have never had a pap smear or breast exam. I can even recall conversations with friends who don’t regularly do self breast exams. I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing the ins and outs your body, so that when and if changes occur, they’re noticeable. Listen, whatever the reason, get over it, because there’s nothing more important than your health. If there’s anything positive that came out of my mother’s passing, it’s that understanding.
I saw my mother suffer through chemotherapy and its side effects, radiation, drains, losing the ability to walk, speak, and eat on her own. There is no preventative screening or checkup that will ever come close to the pain she felt, and anytime I’m scared to make that appointment, I think of her. If you haven’t built a relationship with a doctor or OB/GYN, put that on your priority list asap. Under almost all group health insurance plans, your annual well woman exam will be FREE! No co-pay for preventative care. And if you find yourself without insurance right now, please check out this site for a list of medical facilities in your state which offer well-woman check-ups and screenings for FREE or reduced prices.
Now let’s get down to the basics of these two life-saving checkups. First, the pap-smear, also known as a “well woman exam“. Most primary care physicians will do this exam (which encompasses more than just the pap-smear test), but, depending on your insurance, you can also make an appointment with a OB/GYN outside of your regular doctor’s visits (get with your insurance carrier for details). A regular well woman exam visit only takes 20 minutes, and typically starts off with your vitals, then the removal of all clothes and undergarments (don’t worry, you’ll get a robe), then a breast exam (which we’ll get back to in a second), then the actual pap smear and vaginal (internal & external) exam. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t exactly a recreational experience, but like I said before, 20 minutes of mild discomfort is worth the information you’ll get about your body from it. If you’re completely new to the pap smear experience, here are some tools you’ll see in the exam room.
The exam typically starts with the pap smear. A speculum will be inserted into the vagina to open it so that the tissue sample can be gathered using the tools seen on the counter above (long q-tip like tools). The pap smear literally takes under a minute from start to finish if you stay calm and listen to the doctor’s instructions. There is some mild discomfort as they use the speculum to open you up a bit, and a tiny tinge of a temporary pinching feeling as they collect a tissue sample (for about 2 seconds), and then the speculum is removed and the pap smear is over. It really is that simple! Tissue samples will be sent to a lab and if the results come back as abnormal, your doctor will contact you to discuss next steps. Once the pap smear is over, the doctor will examine the inside and outside of the vagina, and other reproductive parts using inserted fingers and pressure applied to the lower stomach area. This exam is painless (unless there is a problem, OR you haven’t emptied your bladder). If after reading this you still have anxiety about this part of the exam, and have put off making your appointment, talk to your doctor about your concerns ahead of time and see what they suggest to help make the situation more comfortable. Remember, it’s a simple and potentially life saving exam that all women should be having annually (or sometimes even bi-annually, at Dr.’s orders).
Now let’s revisit the breast exam. First let me say that if you’re not doing monthly self exams, start now. Get to know the way your breasts feel because believe it or not, you WILL feel bumpy areas, stretch mark textures and the like. Get to know what’s normal for your breasts that way when something changes, you’ll notice it. Here’s a great website that shows you how to do an accurate self breast check up, including the right time of the month to do them and changes to look for. If you’re under the age of 40, your doctor will perform a thorough breast exam that is identical to the one you should be doing at home, so take notice to what they’re doing and ask questions if you don’t understand or want clarification. Nobody should be silent during any medical exam. Ask questions, chat, and become familiar with these procedures so that you’re more educated on both your body and prevention. If you’re over 40, your breast exam will most likely be a mammogram. If you’re younger than 40 and are high risk (like your mother had breast cancer) they may have you do a mammogram earlier than 40. Early detection is key, and I plan on being as proactive as possible now that I’m in a high risk situation.
Was my visit a success? Yes. I have an amazing OB/GYN who took the time to listen to my concerns, and show me proper self breast exam tips today. As she probed about my mother’s illness, I got emotional and fortunately she understood my own anxieties about my future. She also spoke to me about options like sonograms and genetic testing (BRCA-see link below) as other ways to maintain and monitor my breast health. She happens to work specifically with the BRCA testing and gave me her cell phone number if and when I was ready to discuss this option. There really are great doctors still left in the world!
Cancer is a killer. It took my mom from me, as well as grandparents, cousins and friends. The only way we can fight this beast is by being as proactive as possible with our own health. Listen to your bodies. Get checked. Don’t procrastinate. Right now you have the control, not the disease. So do what needs to be done.
Need more information? Check out these resources: