The best thing a woman can do when it comes to healthcare is to follow her intuition. This tip comes from a Cleveland Clinic gynecologist who has seen thousands of patients, from girls in their teens to women in their 70s.
“If something doesn’t feel right about your health or your relationship with your healthcare provider, go with your gut, go with your heart,” says Linda D. Bradley, MD, Vice Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Professor of Surgery at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. “Seek a second opinion or get other advice.”
Meanwhile, be sure you don’t buy into these common myths about women’s healthcare, says Dr. Bradley:
Myth: Sometimes your periods start up again after they’ve stopped.
Fact: Once your periods stop at menopause (between ages 51 and 58), they don’t come back. “That’s never normal, and even a small amount of bleeding has to be evaluated,” says Dr. Bradley. “‘Never normal’ doesn’t necessarily mean cancer, but the possibility must be excluded.” Other causes of vaginal bleeding after menopause include polyps, extreme dryness, infections, hormone replacement therapy and precancers. Treatments are available for all these conditions.
Myth: If your doctor says you need a hysterectomy, you need a hysterectomy.
Fact: Get a second opinion about any surgery unless it’s an emergency. “One out of three women has a hysterectomy by age 60, but there may be other options for certain conditions,” says Dr. Bradley. Only 10 percent of hysterectomies are done for cancer. Ninety percent are done for conditions that plague women in their 40s — bleeding, fibroids and endometriosis — and for precancerous conditions and uterine prolapse. These conditions can often be treated with new medications and treatments that spare the uterus. If your doctor doesn’t know about them, look elsewhere. And if you find you do need a hysterectomy, ask about minimally invasive options. With new vaginal, laparoscopic single-port or robotic hysterectomy, you’ll get home faster, return to work sooner and need less pain medicine.
Myth: If you’re in your 40s and perimenopausal, you can’t get pregnant.
Fact: After teenagers, women in their 40s are the second largest group of women with unplanned pregnancies. Don’t relax just because your periods are few and far between. “You can become pregnant until you have gone one full year without a period,” says Dr. Bradley. Pregnancy is possible unless you and your partner are using birth control. Ask your doctor about the many safe, effective, easy-to-use methods of birth control available. A newer, permanent birth control option for women — hysteroscopic sterilization — requires no incision. It can be performed safely and comfortably in the doctor’s office without general anesthesia and takes 20 to 30 minutes. You can return to activities the following day without restrictions.
Myth: Once you’re done having babies, you don’t need regular doctor visits.
Fact: You need regular checkups from a gynecologist, internist, family physician or nurse practitioner throughout your adult life. “Don’t neglect your healthcare,” says Dr. Bradley. You’ll need regular breast exams, Pap smears, and pelvic and rectal exams. A doctor who knows your family history can also recommend lifesaving screenings at the right time. For example, if your mother had colon cancer at age 50, instead of recommending colonoscopy screenings between ages 50 and 55, your doctor will recommend them starting at age 40. Your doctor will also keep track of your blood pressure and weight, and provide wellness counseling.
Myth: You have to live with hot flashes even if they make you miserable.
Fact: Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, urinary problems and other menopausal symptoms can be relieved with safe, effective hormonal or nonhormonal treatments. Menopausal symptoms vary, so care for menopause is individualized. “There is a lot of negative press about hormonal therapy and not all of it is true,” says Dr. Bradley. She prescribes hormonal therapy along with changes in diet, supplements and sometimes acupuncture. “There is no one blanket treatment,” she says.
Myth: If your mammogram is normal, everything’s OK.
Fact: Mammograms miss 10 to 15 percent of breast cancers. If your mammogram and breast exam are normal but you have pain, nipple discharge or a change in breast size or skin texture, get it checked out. “Tests are not 100 percent perfect,” says Dr. Bradley. ”Even in the face of a normal mammogram, there are other tests to be done and other diseases to consider.”
Myth: Doctors don’t want to know about personal problems.
Fact: No topic — sexuality, domestic violence, alcoholism, depression — is off limits. Don’t be afraid to bring anything up. “These conversations are critical,” says Dr. Bradley. “You’re not judged by a doctor, your medical records are secure and it’s very confidential.” Even if your doctor can’t help you, he or she can refer you to an expert who can or can point you toward the resources you need.