Taking Women’s Health to Heart

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Women play many roles in life, taking on countless demands that pull them in multiple directions at once. One role women often neglect, however, is that of health advocate for themselves.

“When it comes to women’s health, we need to encourage them to take control,” says Melinda Velez, DO, an independently practicing obstetrician/gynecologist on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center. This means having access to credible sources for information and physician referrals, scheduling annual physicals and mammograms, making smart choices about lifestyle and nutrition, and taking time to exercise. While it may be a challenge to prioritize their needs, it can help save their lives.

“Regular screenings can detect the earliest signs of major health threats such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. And early detection almost always means simpler, more effective treatment,” Dr. Velez says. “Following a healthy lifestyle really can keep you living better and longer.”

Pap tests are extremely important. Half the women diagnosed with cervical cancer in America have never had a pap smear,” Dr. Velez says. “Women who have a cervix should be screened.”

Mammograms are another lifesaving test. One in eight women will have invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. In fact, other than skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer among women in this country. But not all the news is bad. The American Cancer Society reports that the overall five-year survival rate for localized breast cancer is extremely high – 98 percent. The main reason? Early detection.

Monthly breast self-exams are recommended for all women. Self-exams are easy to learn and require just a few minutes once a month. The key is becoming familiar with your own body so that you can detect any changes to your breast tissue.

Self-exams help you notice differences over time, and you can examine your breasts more frequently than your doctor can. “Symptoms of breast cancer include lumps, bloody nipple discharge, or skin changes such as redness, thickening, or an orange peel-like appearance,” Dr. Velez says. “If you feel a change or new mass in your breast, it should be evaluated by your doctor.

If you’re a woman in your 20s or 30s, then your doctor should perform a clinical breast exam at least once every three years. Most guidelines recommend annual clinical exams and mammograms for women of average risk beginning at age 40.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or other high-risk factors, you may need more frequent screenings.

“A digital mammogram, an X-ray of the breast, is currently the best available mass screening method for early detection of breast cancer in women,” Dr. Velez says. “Since many women don’t present any symptoms at all, routine screening is essential.”

In some cases, magnetic resonance imaging, or a MRI, can be another effective tool. Breast MRI is only recommended for screening if you have a very high risk for breast cancer or in women with extremely dense breasts. This includes women with a significant family history of breast or ovarian cancer (especially in first-degree relatives who were diagnosed before menopause), women with personal or close family history of breast cancer genes, or women with a history of radiation to the chest area. Currently, breast MRI is more commonly used as a diagnostic (versus screening) tool in certain women with an abnormal physical exam, mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy.

Sometimes women are hesitant to undergo regular screening because they fear the results. But isn’t the unknown far scarier than the known? “Be informed and know your risk for breast cancer, and understand the risks and benefits of any test you undergo,” Dr. Velez says. “This knowledge can help you can feel empowered, because significant treatment options offer tremendous hope for anyone diagnosed with breast cancer.”

A little physical exercise can go a long way in life. “Exercising increases oxygen and blood flow to muscles, reducing tension and stress. It helps to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, build strong bones, increase heart and lung capacity, and reduce fluid retention,” says Dr. Velez.  “Exercise also causes the release of endorphins, nature’s mood elevators.”

Take an active role in your own health care and develop a close relationship with your physician. The earlier disease is detected, the better chance for a cure.