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We know. You’re busy, and it’s not your favorite thing in the world. But a trip to the gynecologist is all about you. That’s right: keeping healthy so you can keep everyone else healthy, too. Even if it’s something you think isn’t a big deal or is too embarrassing to ask, don’t be afraid to tell your doctor (trust us, your GYN has heard it all). Here’s what to ask to get the most out of your next visit:
Is this normal?
A period that’s heavy, light or wonky. A heavy discharge. An odor. Lumpy breasts. “Most women know what’s ‘normal’ for them,” says Peter J. Chen, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. “But if there’s any change at all, speak up. It may be nothing, but we should address anything that concerns you.”
How often do I need a Pap test?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women ages 21 to 29 have a cervical cancer screening (the Pap test) every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 should have Pap and HPV tests every five years, or a Pap test alone every three years. If you’ve had the HPV vaccine, follow the recommendations for your age group. And even if you’ve had a hysterectomy, you still may need to be screened.
What can I do about incontinence?
First things first: “Urinary incontinence is common but never ‘normal,’” says George Tweddel, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Rutgers Medical School New Brunswick. “If it’s bothersome to you, tell your doctor because there are many minimally-invasive treatment options including muscle exercises, biofeedback and many different medications.” If leaking when you cough, laugh or exercise doesn’t bug you, don’t worry about it. But there’s no reason to be uncomfortable if it’s impacting your quality of life.
What’s the best birth control for me right now?
Just because you’ve always used the pill (or a barrier method) doesn’t mean it’s still the best choice. “This should be a yearly conversation with your GYN,” says Tweddel. Discuss whether you plan to get pregnant, if you’re with a new partner (which should lead to a discussion about safe sex, because that’s not just a topic for teens!) and what’s working or not working. For example, if you often forget to take a daily pill, other forms of contraception may be more convenient.
Why does sex hurt?
Sex should never be painful, says Tweddel. If you’re experiencing pain in your vulva, vagina, perineum, lower back, pelvis or bladder, tell your doctor. Many different gynecologic conditions including endometriosis, ovarian cysts or infections may cause painful sex. Hormonal changes may cause vaginal dryness, and skin conditions, like contact dermatitis as a reaction to perfumed soaps or lubricants, may also cause itching, pain or burning during sex.
Could I be starting perimenopause?
Although the average age of menopause (defined as 12 months without a period) is 51 years, things can get erratic long before then. “At age 40, start having the conversation with your doctor about what to expect,” says Tweddel. Signs to watch for that may indicate perimenopause include menstrual irregularity with periods getting closer together and lasting longer, night sweats, anxiety and mood swings.
Do I really need to give myself a breast exam regularly?
A monthly exam is best because you should know how your breasts usually feel, says Chen. Here’s what to do: A week after your period when your breasts are less tender, stand in front of the mirror. Look for changes such as dimpling or your skin or nipple being pulled inward. Then lie down and use your opposite hand to make circular motions over your breast, including under the armpit and up to your collarbone. “If you find something that feels rubbery and mobile like the tip of your nose, it’s typically fine. If it feels hard like the bridge of your nose, let your doctor know right away,” says Chen.
Should I be screened for genetic cancers?
If you have a family history of breast, ovarian, pancreatic or colon cancer, bring it up with your doctor. He or she can decide whether you should be screened for familial diseases, says Tweddel.
—Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.