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5 Lifesaving Tests for Women

WebMD ranks the top five lifesaving health tests every woman needs.

No. 2 The Power of the Pap Test continued...

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that the Pap test be done annually until age 30. After 30, if a healthy woman has had three completely normal Pap tests in a row, she can have a Pap test every two to three years (but should still see a gynecologist every year for an exam). Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., but the widespread use of the Pap test has significantly decreased deaths from this cancer.

But there's more. A human papillomavirus (HPV) test may be done as follow-up to an abnormal Pap test, says Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research based in Washington, D.C. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is the main cause of cervical cancer. An HPV test can help determine whether one or more high-risk types of HPV caused the abnormal Pap test result.

"If you are younger than 30, it's recommended you have the HPV test if your Pap smear test detects abnormal cells or is unclear, and if you are 30 or older, experts recommend you have the HPV test at the same time as your Pap test," she says.

There is also an HPV vaccine, Gardasil, to help prevent cervical cancer. The CDC recommends the vaccine for 11- and 12-year-old girls, but it can be given as young as age 9. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for girls and women aged 13 to 26 who have not been previously vaccinated or did not receive the complete vaccine series. Recent research suggests that Gardasil offers protection against viruses that cause 90% of cervical cancers.

No. 3 The Benefit of Mammograms

Women aged 40 and older should get a mammogram (breast X-ray) every one or two years, Greenberger says. "If there is a history of breast cancer in her family, a woman should get her first mammogram 10 years before her relative was diagnosed," she tells WebMD. Women older than 50 should have annual mammograms. Unfortunately, studies have suggested that women may not be getting their annual mammograms. "Some women just don't want to know, but with breast cancer being treatable in many cases and even curable, every woman should be getting this," she says.

Moore agrees: "If we catch a breast cancer in stage I, 97% of women who have it will be cured," she says. "As inconvenient as it is to schedule a mammogram, if it comes back clean, we know we are in the free and clear for a year, and that's reassuring."

In addition, women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam by a doctor every three years to feel for suspicious lumps and bumps. After age 40, a doctor’s breast exam should be done every year. Although there are no definitive studies showing the benefit of breast self-exams, the American Cancer Society says breast self-exams are an option for women starting in their 20s. Talk to your doctor to determine if breast self-exams are a good idea for you, and have your doctor teach you how to do them correctly.

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