1. Pap smear
The doctor gently swabs internally to collect cervical cells that are later examined under a microscope.
When Every one to three years. Annual tests are a must if you’ve ever had abnormal results, says Vivien Brown, a Toronto-based family physician and Toronto president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada. However, if you’ve always been clear of irregularities, had three consecutive normal results and haven’t changed sexual partners, a pap test every few years should suffice.
Why To detect precancerous cells in your cervix so they can be treated before they progress into cancer. “It’s important to understand that you feel nothing with cervical cancer — generally, it’s asymptomatic — so this is the way you pick up on it,” says Brown.
Prep Refrain from sex for a day or two before the test. “It can interfere with the sample, as sometimes we see sperm on the pap results,” says Dara Maker, a family physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.
2. Waist circumference
Your waist is sized with a measuring tape. Yes, that’s all there is to it. You could do it at home, but you have to be precise about where you measure (not the itsy-bitsy part of your waist, but around the top of your hip bone, which should be almost in line with your belly button), plus you have to keep track of results to monitor changes from year to year.
When Once a year.
Why After giving birth, it can be hard to shed those last 10 pounds of baby weight. And if you have the same experience after a second child, you may be carrying extra cushioning around your middle. And that can pose a problem for your health. “If you have a waist circumference above 35 inches (88 centimetres), you’re at higher risk for things like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure,” says Maker.
Prep Take off your top, lower your jeans, stand straight and don’t suck in: Remember, accuracy is the goal!
3. Blood pressure
Your physician places a blood pressure cuff around your arm, pumps it up and listens to your blood flow with a stethoscope.
When Once a year.
Why Not so long ago, this test to detect high blood pressure wasn’t necessary for younger ladies (and gents). The story has changed, however, simply due to our lifestyle. “We’re less active and more overweight, and those are both risk factors for getting high blood pressure,” says Maker. High blood pressure, which comes with no symptoms, is classified as 140/90 (130/80 for diabetics) or higher, and can lead to heart disease and stroke. “For most healthy individuals, you probably want to be aiming for no higher than 120/80,” she says.
Prep Some things can have a short-term effect on blood pressure, such as stress, caffeine and booze. For the most accurate results, try to be as calm and relaxed as possible — and avoid that latte — before the test.
4. High cholesterol and diabetes
Doctors draw a few vials of blood to examine your cholesterol and glucose levels. The catch: Your stomach has to be empty.
When Testing for high cholesterol and diabetes begins around age 40, and happens once a year, but your screening should start earlier if you have risk factors, such as family history of either condition, polycystic ovarian syndrome (risk for diabetes) or gestational diabetes, says Maker.
Why “High cholesterol is silent (and linked to heart disease); you don’t have any symptoms from it,” she says. “And most people with very early diabetes don’t know they have it either.” Hence the regular testing: It may reveal what you don’t feel.
Prep Be prepared to have a grumbling stomach. For these fasting tests, Maker says, you can’t eat or drink (a bit of water is OK, mind you) for 10 to 12 hours before the blood work.
Your breasts are X-rayed one at a time. They’re kind of squished down in the machine, which can be uncomfy, so that the clearest picture is taken, reports Health Canada.
When Beginning at age 50, you need a mammogram about every two years. However, if you’re high-risk for breast cancer, breast X-rays should start sooner and should take place annually. “If it runs in your family, the general rule is to start doing mammograms 10 years before your first-degree relative was diagnosed,” says Maker. “So if your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, you should start doing mammograms at age 35.”
Why Health Canada rates mammography the best screening tool for breast cancer, spotting lumps, bumps and changes in the tissue before you can feel them with your hands: “Studies show that regular screening mammograms can reduce deaths from breast cancer by as much as one-third for women [aged 50 to 69].”
Prep Skip the deodorant, lotions and powders under your arms and on your breasts since they can leave behind residue and muddle up X-ray clarity. As well, show up in a two-piece outfit, as your top will need to come off.
A note on vaccines
Vaccines aren’t just for your babes, you need them too. “Adults need immunization of one kind or another about every 10 years,” says Vivien Brown, a family physician in Toronto. “Your last childhood vaccine is given at 15, which means by 25, you’re due for a booster. The current recommendation is to get immunized for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough).” You may also need a touch-up of others, such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Speak to your doctor to determine what shots you need.