A woman’s body is incredibly strong and resilient. Several unique organ systems make a woman capable of giving birth to another human being and providing it with vital nourishment. But these complex organ systems are also vulnerable to a number of disorders and diseases.
While both men and women can benefit greatly from annual health check-ups, the presence of the complex reproductive system in a woman makes it even more important to undergo a periodic well-woman exam. In this blog post, we will explore the following topics:
- What is a well-woman exam?
- Why is a well-woman exam important?
- What procedures are included in a well-woman exam?
- How to prepare for a well-woman exam?
VNA Health Care is committed to providing access to quality and affordable healthcare services for women in the Chicago suburbs. Our services include annual well-woman exams for women of all age groups. In this post, we will also explain in detail the different procedures you can utilize at low cost or free of cost as part of the VNA Health Care well-woman exam.
What Is a Well-Woman Exam?
A well-woman exam is also called a wellness visit, gynecological exam, or an annual exam. The wellness exam is carried out by a licensed medical practitioner who is either a gynecology doctor, primary healthcare physician, or nurse practitioner. These are professionals who have been trained in women’s health and understand the changing healthcare needs of the female body over the years.
A well-woman visit looks at the different parts of the female body and includes the following procedures:
- Breast examination
- Pelvic exam
- Checking for sexually transmitted diseases
- Screening for cancer (breast cancer screening and cervical cancer screening)
- General health exam
As you can see, a well-woman visit is not solely focused on the uterus or the breasts. It is a complete medical check-up of the body, including reproductive health. Generally, most women take their first well-woman exam sometime in their late teen years.
It’s a good idea to take a wellness visit if you are a sexually active teenager. Otherwise, any time between 18 and 21 years is a good time to start taking an annual well-woman visit. Ideally, you should be taking these visits regularly from the age of 21.
As part of health and human services, these well-woman care exams may also sometimes include a clinical breast exam, mental health screening, and screening for chronic disease such as high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus.
Why Is a Well-Woman Exam So Important?
Conducting annual well-woman exams can have a vital impact on your overall health and even help avoid an early death from certain cancers. These preventive health services visits are an important part of women’s health care. Here are some of the key reasons why you should go for a wellness visit every year without fail:
Prevention or Early Detection of Cervical Cancer
For starters, the pelvic exam and pap smear test are the only way to detect early signs of cervical cancer. It is a type of cancer caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus or HPV. At one point in time, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death in American women.
Encouragingly, with regular pap smear tests and pelvic exams, we have successfully reduced the incidence of deaths due to cervical cancer, but it still poses health risks. Each year, around 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer are discovered and it results in the death of over 4,200 women.
The most common type of cervical cancer starts with some changes in the uterus. This is called the pre-cancerous stage. If you detect cancer in this early stage, the disease can be treated and prevented from growing into full-blown cancer.
Since a well-woman visit always includes some type of screening for cervical cancer, it could help save your life.
Prevention or Early Detection of Breast Cancer
While the occurrence of cervical cancer is relatively infrequent, the same cannot be said about breast cancer. After skin cancer, it is the second most common type of cancer found among women in the United States. Breast cancer is also the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, behind lung cancer.
Any woman (and even some men) can get cancer in their breasts. Almost 30% of all new cancers detected in women each year are breast cancers. If you are an American woman, your chances of developing breast cancer at some point in life are 1 in 8 or about 13%.
Early detection is critical for a positive outcome from breast cancer treatment. The best way to screen for breast cancer is via a mammogram – an x-ray of the breast. It can help detect the very early signs of cancer deep inside the breast tissue, at least three years before you would be able to feel it as breast lumps. With early detection, you might be able to avoid breast removal as well.
Breast cancer is more common among women above the age of 40 so annual mammograms are included as part of your wellness visits beginning at this age.
Improve Your Reproductive Health
Numerous disorders and diseases can affect the reproductive system. They include sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), urinary tract infections (UTIs), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and other disorders.
These can affect your ability to have a healthy sex life and safe pregnancies. Annual medical check-ups during a well-woman exam can help solve many of these problems or at least keep them under control.
What to Expect from a Well-Woman Visit?
There are several different stages to a well-woman exam. Before the different procedures, the nurses or physicians at the facility will ask you about your medical history, family history, and any ongoing health concerns.
Common Questions Asked During a Well-Woman Exam
The doctor or nurse may ask the following questions:
- How often do you get your period?
- How long do your periods typically last?
- Do you experience heavy menstrual bleeding?
- Do you experience bleeding/spotting between your periods?
- Do you experience any itching, pain, or unusual discharge from your vagina?
- What other medical conditions do you have (if any)?
- Does anyone in your family have a history of major illnesses like cancers or heart disease?
- Are you sexually active?
- How often do you have sex and what kinds of sex (vaginal, anal, oral)?
- How many sexual partners do you have and of what gender are your partners?
- Do you suffer pain or bleed during or after sex?
- Are you using birth control?
- What protective measures do you use against STDs?
- Do you plan to get pregnant any time soon?
While some of these questions are undoubtedly very personal and uncomfortable, it is vital that you provide honest and accurate answers to each. It will help the healthcare providers serve you better. And do keep in mind that there are strict laws about patient privacy – the physicians/nurses cannot reveal personal details to anyone outside a healthcare setting.
What to Expect During a Physical Exam?
The doctor/nurse will take your vital statistics like height and weight. They will also measure other things like your blood pressure and heart rate, and also listen to your lungs’ breathing. Furthermore, they will check your throat for any issues with the thyroid gland.
A basic examination of your abdomen is also conducted. If you are between the ages of 40 to 64, they may conduct the following cardiovascular disease tests using blood and urine samples:
- Diabetes screening tests
- Cholesterol screening tests
- Screening for colon cancer
- Scanning for bone density
The healthcare providers will check on your current vaccination status as well. These may include HPV vaccines to prevent cervical cancer (annual up to the age of 26), as well as shots for flu, tetanus, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and varicella.
What to Expect During a Breast Exam?
Younger women under the age of 40 will usually receive a manual breast exam. The nurse or physician will use their hands to inspect and press your breasts and armpit areas. You will have to take off any clothes covering the breast area for this exam.
The doctor/nurse will first inspect the breasts with their eyes for any outward signs of illness, like rashes, discolorations, and visible lumps. Next, they will feel each breast with the tips of their fingers to check for any lumps inside. They will also check your nipples and the area under your armpits.
These healthcare providers are trained to look for any abnormalities. If they find anything unusual they will suggest further tests or scans. The most common scan to look for breast cancer is something called a mammogram.
If you are above the age of 40, a mammogram is usually included in the annual well-woman exam. Mammograms are also recommended for younger women who have a higher risk of getting breast cancer (due to a history of breast cancer in the family, genetic conditions, medication, etc).
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast taken using a special x-ray machine. A nurse or x-ray technologist will guide you through the whole process. You will be asked to stand in front of the mammogram machine. Your breasts will be placed between two plastic plates, one at a time.
The plates will squeeze the breast to keep it still for the scan. The entire process is usually completed within 15 minutes. While you may experience mild discomfort or pain, it will go away immediately.
What to Expect During a Pelvic Exam?
Many women dread the pelvic exam because the entire process can feel uncomfortable, weird, and an invasion of privacy. But the pelvic exam is a very powerful tool for your overall gynecological health and cancer prevention.
A pelvic exam consists of three main parts:
- An examination of the outer vagina/vulva.
- An examination of the inside of the vagina and cervix using a speculum.
- An examination of the uterus using gloved hands.
The entire process only takes a few minutes. You will be asked to remove all your clothes and step into a gown. The doctor may provide an additional sheet to wrap around your waist for privacy and comfort.
Before the actual pelvic exam, the doctor may check your heart, lungs, and abdomen. During the pelvic exam, you will be asked to lie flat on the examination table with your knees bent, feet placed apart on the corners of the table, or in stirrups.
After looking at the outside of the vagina for any signs of infection or sores, the doctor will spread your vaginal walls by inserting an instrument called the speculum. It is shaped like a duck’s bill and made out of metal or plastic. It can cause some discomfort – tell the doctor if you feel any pain.
After looking at the inside of the vagina, the doctor will use two fingers to feel the inside of your abdomen. By pressing these fingers onto the uterus and ovaries, the doctor can check the size and shape. It will help detect any unusual growths or abnormalities.
The doctor can usually tell immediately if there are any issues that require additional tests or scans.
Are Pap Smears Included in a Pelvic Exam?
A pap smear is a test conducted during a pelvic exam to detect signs of cervical cancer. It involves collecting cervix cell samples from inside your vagina using a speculum and a brush. The cell samples are then sent to a lab to look for signs of cancer.
The whole process can be rather uncomfortable. There may also be light bleeding immediately after the collection of samples. The frequency of getting pap smears will vary depending on your age:
- Between 21 and 29 – once every three years.
- Between 30 and 64 – once every five years when combined with a test for HPV.
Pap smears are discontinued after the age of 64, or if you have surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy). The doctor may recommend more frequent pap smears if you have any additional risk factors – a positive test for cervical cancer in the past, HIV infections, organ transplants, chemotherapy, steroid treatments, or a history of smoking.
Generally, if you are between the ages of 21 and 64, you can expect a pap smear (or HPV test) to be a part of your pelvic exam once every 3–5 years.
Difference Between a Pap Smear Test and an HPV Test
Both the pap test and HPV test are two different ways to screen for cervical cancer. Almost all forms of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. There are many types of HPV viruses, some cause harmless warts while others cause dangerous cancers.
A pap smear test uses cell samples from inside your vagina to look for signs of cancer. In contrast, an HPV test looks for the presence of high-risk HPV viruses inside your vagina. Both medical tests use samples from the same area inside the cervix, the lower end of the uterus.
If you get a positive pap test, it means that you need treatment to prevent the growth of cancer. A positive HPV test means that high-risk strains of the virus exist inside your body. This is a warning sign – even if you don’t have cancer right now, there is a high chance of it developing in the future.
If you get a positive HPV test, the doctor may recommend more frequent pap smear tests during future well-woman exams as a precaution.
Counseling After Your Well-Woman Visit
After the completion of the various procedures, the healthcare provider may suggest further measures to improve your overall health. This can include optional information regarding contraception – you can seek guidance regarding birth control measures to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
For older women above the age of 45, the healthcare provider may also include counseling for menopause. This will include discussions regarding the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to increase the level of estrogen and progesterone in the body. It may be beneficial in reducing the risk of heart disease and improving bone health (preventing osteoporosis).
VNA Health Care Provides Free/Low-Cost Well-Woman Exams
VNA Health Care is a highly dependable and accredited non-profit organization working with underserved communities throughout suburban Chicago. We provide high-quality, low-cost access to essential medical services, including family medicine, pediatrics, senior care, pregnancy care, and vaccinations, with extra focus on women’s health and primary care.
Under the Affordable Care Act, annual well-woman exams are completely free and covered in full by insurance plans as a preventive benefit. To get a well-woman exam free, all you have to do is get the procedure done at a healthcare provider that accepts your insurance plan.
VNA Health Care accepts all major insurance plans including Medicare, Medicaid, and other private market insurance plans. Even if you don’t have insurance, you may qualify for free or low-cost wellness exams at our health centers. To learn more, call our appointment line at (630) 892-4355 today.
Funding provided in whole or in part by the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program