Lifesaving Tests for Women

Medically Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on June 21, 2016

The right screening tests can make a huge difference to your health. Just ask Annette Prete, 66, of Lindenhurst, N.Y.  Every year, for as long as she can remember, she's made sure to get every exam her doctor recommended. When her mammogram results picked up some signs of breast cancer in 2012, she had surgery that caught all the disease.

"If I hadn't gone for my mammogram regularly, things might have turned out much differently," Prete says. "Suppose I'd waited a few years? I might have had to deal with a lot of chemo or radiation -- and maybe I wouldn't even be here today. But because of that test, I'm here to enjoy my life and spend every minute I can with my grandchildren."

That's the power of prevention. Get screening tests on your radar to look for early signs of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other conditions.

Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked. Your doctor can tell you how often you should get this done.

Cholesterol tests are simple. You get a blood test that reveals your levels of blood fats like LDL "bad" cholesterol, HDL "good cholesterol," and triglycerides. If the numbers aren't where they should be, changes in your diet or medicine can help bring them back in line.

It's also a good idea to check for diabetes, which can be related to heart disease.

"Many women on cholesterol-lowering medications may also be at increased risk for diabetes," says Holly Thacker, MD, director of the Center for Specialized Women's Health at the Cleveland Clinic. "Heart disease and diabetes are some of the biggest health plagues, so it may be a good idea to be screened yearly for A1c, which tests your blood sugar."

Just like checking your cholesterol, your doctor does an A1c test by taking a small sample of your blood and sending it to get examined in a lab.

Mammograms are an important way to check for breast cancer, and catch the disease when it's early and easier to treat. It uses X-rays to create pictures of the inside of your breasts.

Check with your doctor about how often you should get the test and at what age. There are different recommendations from health organizations. The American Cancer Society calls for a yearly mammogram starting at age 45, and every 2 years at 55. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), on the other hand, says women 50 to 74 should have mammograms every other year.

Most health groups don't recommend breast self-exams anymore. But it can't hurt to be familiar with the way your breasts look, so you'll know if there are new lumps or growths.

Get a Pap test, which checks for abnormal cells in your cervix that could turn into cancer. It's a powerful way to prevent the disease. The USPSTF says women 21 to 65 should get one every 3 years.

If you're 30 to 65, you've got a choice. You can keep getting a Pap test every 3 years, or you can get it along with an HPV test every 5 years. That other test is useful because most cervical cancers are caused by an infection with HPV (human papillomavirus).

If you're over 65, check with your doctor to see if you need to keep up the Pap and HPV tests, and how often.

Colorectal cancer usually begins with growths in your colon called polyps. One key test that looks for those is called a colonoscopy.

Your doctor will use a flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end to check for polyps. He can usually remove any that he spots. They'll be sent to a lab where a technician checks for signs of cancer.

"If results are normal, it's good for 10 years," Thacker says. "So get it done, starting at age 50."

It's the most common cancer in the U.S. One in five Americans will get it at some point in their lives.

"Get a good skin check yearly, and in between, be aware of moles that may have changed, or any differences in the texture or quality of your skin," Thacker says. She calls those steps "vital." 

Half of all women who have gone through menopause are at risk for a condition called osteoporosis, which makes your bones weaker and less dense. It may also be triggered by other medical conditions, like diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease.

Talk to your doctor about your risk and about getting tested. The USPSTF recommends you get a bone density exam starting at 65 if you're at average risk.  

"Knowing your bone scan results are important as women age," says Lynnette Howington, DNP, RNC, a nurse practitioner who specializes in women's health. That's because osteoporosis raises your risk of a serious spine or hip fracture, which can happen if you have the condition. "There are so many strategies to increase -- or at least maintain -- bone density for those who are showing signs of osteoporosis, so having a baseline measurement is absolutely important."

Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology, "Skin Cancer."

American Heart Association: "Facts about Heart Disease in Women."  

American Society for Clinical Pathology: "The Pap Smear: A Life-Saving Test."

Cleveland Clinic, "Health Maintenance Guidelines for Adults: Adult Screening Guidelines."

Lynnette Howington, DNP, RNC, director, administrative affairs, nursing, Texas Christian University.

Susan G. Komen Foundation: "Breast Cancer Screening for Women at Average Risk."

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "What Is Osteoporosis and What Causes It?"

Annette Prete, Lindenhurst, NY.

Holly Thacker, MD, director, center for specialized women's health, Cleveland Clinic.

University of Utah Health Care, Women's Health Services: "One Medical Visit, Five Tests."

US Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health: "Screening Tests for Women."

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: "Cervical Cancer: Screening," "Osteoporosis: Screening."

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