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This Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the spotlight is on the importance of the Pap test and its critical role in detecting cervical cancer early, when it’s most treatable. Dr. Payal Shah, an OB/GYN with Holy Name explains why scheduling your routine Pap test is more than just a routine health check; it’s an act of self-care and prevention.

Q: Why are yearly gynecologic appointments important?

A: Scheduling your annual visit to see your OB/GYN is an opportunity to proactively protect your health. During these visits you can expect a Pap test, which can detect early stage cervical cancers, as well as clinical breast and pelvic exams.

Regular visits to your gynecologist help to establish the important relationship between you and your doctor, making it easier to receive needed screenings and detect emerging health issues. A trusted OB/GYN can also be your best resource for information about sexual, menstrual and reproductive health. I suggest that patients make a list of questions and concerns before each visit and talk through them with their doctor.

Q: What age should women begin their visits?

A: The right age for your first OB/GYN is different for each individual. I recommend that the first visit happens around the time a woman becomes sexually active, or at age 21, whichever occurs first. This is a great time to discuss family planning, learn more about sexually transmitted diseases (STD) or get screened for an STD, if necessary.

I also have patients who are moms and choose to bring their daughters in shortly after their first period, which can happen as early as age nine. Seeing these young patients at the beginning of their reproductive health journey is a great time to build that doctor and patient relationship. Even when a physical exam isn't necessary, these appointments provide young patients an opportunity to ask questions, express concerns, and learn about self-breast exams.

Q: Is there an age when women can stop visiting their OB/GYN?

A: There are a lot of myths out there regarding when women can or should stop having annual gynecologic appointments. I want to dispel one of the most common myths– that if you’ve had a hysterectomy, you no longer need an annual visit. That is not true.

In most cases, women still have their ovaries after a hysterectomy. They may not need a Pap test, but will still need an annual pelvic exam and breast exam. Leaving the ovaries in place after a hysterectomy is beneficial since the hormones they release help maintain heart and bone health. Also, some women may still have a cervix after a hysterectomy, in which case a Pap test is definitely still needed.

Overall, if you are sexually active, or if your cervix or ovaries remain intact post-hysterectomy, I recommend a gynecologic visit every year. Based on your age and medical history, your OB/GYN can recommend other important screenings.

To schedule an appointment, call 201-907-0900.