Earlier this year, the American Cancer Society came out with new guidelines concerning Pap smears, which screen for cervical cancer. Conventional wisdom had long held that women should receive annual Pap smears, but in March, doctors announced the new guidelines suggesting that women receive a Pap smear once every three years.
Over 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4,000 die each year from the disease. Getting a regular Pap smear can detect the early signs of the disease, when it is most treatable.
Dr. Debbie Saslow, director of Breast and Gynecologic Cancer of the American Cancer Society, said it was the first time the Society was recommending more infrequent screenings. So why the change?
Since cervical cancer grows slowly, many doctors agree that there’s no harm in waiting longer between Pap smears, and that having too many Pap smears carries its own risk, as they often cause false alarms and lead women to undergo unnecessary test procedures that can weaken the cervix. Weak or damaged cervixes can lead to preterm labor, which results in low birth weight for infants.
Also for the first time, the new guidelines say that when women turn 30, they can get the Pap test along with a test for the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer, and if both tests come back negative, most women can wait another five years before taking the tests again.
The new guidelines also suggest that women stop getting screened altogether after they turn 65 if everything still looks okay.
While these new principles were perhaps the biggest change in women’s health advice in 2012 so far, other myths and erroneous ideas have been disproven, although many women may be unaware of them.
Many people think cancer cannot be prevented, but scientists believe that as many as 50 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. are causes by social and environmental factors, as well as poor personal choices.
For example, it’s estimated that more than a fourth of breast cancers in postmenopausal women might be due to physical inactivity and carrying extra weight. Diligent attention to mammograms – women over 40 should have a mammogram every one to two years – can detect breast cancer at its earliest stages when it is most treatable. Women who are concerned with exposure to radiation should know that the American College of Radiology says that the amount of radiation is very minute, and its risk is far outweighed by the benefits of annual mammograms.
In addition, breastfeeding has been linked to lower premenopausal breast cancer rates, as well as lower rates of ovarian cancer.
Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular screenings also play a role in helping to prevent cervical and colorectal cancer.
Avoiding tobacco is also one of the most important ways to prevent certain cancers, notably lung cancer, as well as coronary heart disease. Even secondhand smoke can have deleterious effects to your health, so make sure to send any smokers in your family outside when they light up (if you cannot get them to quit). Diligent use of sunscreen, to avoid exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, can help prevent skin cancer.
Some young women who have no history of breast cancer in their families believe they don’t need to be vigilant about monthly breast exams, but the fact is that the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, nor do they possess the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene that are risk factors for the disease.
Many women who start families may also believe that certain birth defects are inevitable. But of the estimated 3,000 pregnancies in the U.S. each year result in defects of the brain (ancencephaly), or spine (spina bifida), anamazing 70 percent of these defects can be prevented by consuming adequate amounts of folic acid daily, starting before pregnancy. If you are even thinking of becoming pregnant, or know it may be a possibility, make sure to consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.
Many of us have heard the rule that in order to really affect our weight and health, we must exercise at least 30-60 minutes each day. Finding this amount of time each day is not realistic for those who work, parent, or both. Many studies have found that regular bursts of activity – anything from ten minutes a day two or three times a day, or twenty minutes of intense exercise (to the point where you’re breathing so heavily you find it hard to talk) four or five times a week may be as beneficial to your health as continuous periods of exercise.
You also don’t need a high-priced gym membership to achieve these goals. Any activity helps, including walking, running, cleaning the house, skiing, and swimming. The most important thing is to get in spurts of moving your body at peak intensity for a short period of time, several times a week. This form of exercise is very beneficial in combating osteoporosis, as studies show that exercise in bursts rather than longer routines stimulates the bone-building cells in your body. Bursts also trigger positive metabolic reactions that assist in increasing respiratory capacity and muscle volume, which helps ensure lasting weight loss.
Being vigilant about your health is important, and that includes reading and remaining informed about women’s health breakthroughs, disproven myths, and new tests, so you can accurately reap the benefits.
Tova Ross is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.
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