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Routine checkup schedule for women

While there are many health screenings relevant to both men and women, there are also tests specific to each gender. Two of the more important routine screenings women should be aware of are regular mammograms and pap tests, which can both diagnose risk factors for certain types of cancer.

Mammogram

A mammogram consists of X-ray pictures of the breasts and is used to detect irregularities in breast tissue that may reveal the presence of cancerous tumors. Screenings also might detect microcalcifications that can sometimes indicate breast cancer as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 40,678 breast cancer deaths occurred in 2009 and that 26 out of every 100,000 females will die from breast cancer. Most organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, recommend that women age 40 and over have a mammogram done every one to two years to help catch cancer early, which improves a woman's chance of survival. However, not every woman is routinely getting screened. In the United States, roughly 68 percent of women have gotten mammograms within the last two years, according to the CDC.

Although mammograms require small doses of radiation, which can cause cancer, to take the images, the benefits nearly always outweigh the risks. It is recommended that women age 35 to 39 get a baseline mammogram so they have an image of the healthy breast to which future mammograms can be compared.

Pap Tests

A pap test, also known as a pap smear, is a diagnostic tool that checks for cellular changes in the cervix. The cervix serves as a barrier point between the vagina and the uterus.

The pap test is usually done in a gynecologist's office, although family practitioners also may administer it in their own offices. The doctor will insert a speculum into the vagina to widen the passageway so he or she can see the cervix. He or she then will take a sample of cells from inside and outside the cervix and send them to a laboratory for testing.

It is recommended that a woman refrain from sexual activity prior to her pap test. It's also best if a woman does not use any lubricants, cleansers or medications that are used intravaginally before the test. Also, she should not use tampons. In fact, those who have their menstrual period will want to reschedule the pap because it can be difficult for a doctor to get a good collection of cells for testing.

The frequency of pap tests will be determined by the woman's age, results of prior pap tests, medical history, and history of the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Many women get annual pap tests starting at age 21 or when they first become sexually active. Those who have had normal results for at least three years in a row may opt to get tested every two or three years. Women who are age 65 or older may be able to cease pap tests, but annual pelvic exams are still advised. For those who have had a hysterectomym which involves the removal of the uterus, pap tests are still necessary. However, after a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix), pap tests may stop.

Pap tests are not always 100 percent accurate, however. False positive and false negative results can happen. The doctor may require a different type of test if a pap test comes back with a positive result.

To remain healthy, women are advised to keep up with routine physicals and tests that can help diagnose cervical and breast cancer in their early stages. If lack of medical insurance is preventing a woman from being tested, she can contact the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program to find programs that offer free or low-cost pap tests to women in need.