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5 Lifesaving Tests for Women

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

No. 4 The Katie Couric Test

Thanks to Katie Couric, more and more women are realizing that colon cancer is not just a man's disease. When Couric underwent a colonoscopy live on national television in March 2000, colonoscopies nationwide jumped more than 20% in the following days and months. She became a spokeswoman for this cause after the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, from colon cancer at age 42.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that nearly 75,000 women will be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer in 2007.

A colonoscopy allows a doctor to see and closely inspect the inside of the rectum and entire colon for signs of cancer, polyps, or small growths that can eventually become cancerous. The patient is first given a medication in a vein that causes sleepiness and relaxation. A colonoscope is gently eased inside the colon; it has a tiny video camera, which sends pictures to a TV monitor. Small puffs of air are introduced into the colon to keep it open and allow the doctor to see clearly. Preparation-wise, you follow a special diet the day before the exam and take a very strong laxative the day before the procedure. You may also need an enema to cleanse the colon. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and in women in the U.S.

"Colon cancer is totally preventable and treatable if they find it early," Greenberg says. "Every man and woman should have a colonoscopy despite the fact that it is an unpleasant experience."

Beginning at age 50, men and women who are at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should have a colonoscopy every 10 years, according to the ACS. If you’ve had a family member with colorectal cancer, you should have a colonoscopy 10 years before your relative was diagnosed.

No. 5 Skin Sense and Sensibility

"Every woman at the age of 18 should start having an annual skin exam by their dermatologist," recommends Ellen S. Marmur, MD, chief of the division of dermatology and cosmetic surgery at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "This entails a head-to-toe skin exam looking for unusual brown or red spots" she says. But "every month you should do a skin self-exam using a hand mirror or hair blower to part your hair and look at your scalp. Don't forget to check for unusual or new moles on your fingernails, the bottom of your feet and toes, and your underarms. The earlier you start doing this, the better you will know your skin, and if you find something suspicious, your brain will set off an alarm and that will bring you in to see your doctor earlier."

Melanoma accounts for about 4% of skin cancer cases, but it causes most skin cancer deaths. The number of new cases of melanoma in the U.S. is on the rise. In fact, the ACS estimates that in 2007 there will be nearly 60,000 new cases of melanoma in this country. More than 8,000 people will die of this disease. Early detection and treatment can save lives.

Reviewed on October 11, 2007

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