The gynecologist: Knowing your options

Business management sophomore Tiffany Lim’s first visit to the gynecologist was at age 18, and overall she had a good experience. 

From answering all her questions to asking her mom to step out of the room for privacy, her doctor helped her through the process and made her feel comfortable, Lim said. 

Lim knew what to expect despite it being her first time. She shadowed a gynecologist in high school, but most people don’t have that opportunity.  

According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s normal to be nervous about your first visit. Patients are advised to visit their gynecologists annually starting in their early teens, and at 21, it’s recommended they start getting pap smears.

For many patients, the prospect of a first gynecology appointment is unsettling or even scary. Many put off or forgo checkups unless something is overtly wrong, which can lead to undiagnosed problems in the future.

Before your visit

Bhavisha Bhakta, a gynecologist at Women’s Care Associates in Mansfield, said to be prepared to be open with your doctor. Whether you have reservations or questions, tell your gynecologist so they know your concerns.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about everything, even the things you might think are embarrassing, she said. 

Acting sophomore Bethany Mejorado first went to her gynecologist when she was 15 because she was concerned about her irregular menstrual cycle.

Mejorado said she was nervous because conversations about her changing body seemed taboo at the time, and she didn’t want to ask her mom about stuff like that.

Mejorado said she spent time Googling things like “Do you have to get naked at the gynecologist?” before her visit, reading up on forums and sites like Yahoo! Answers. 

Mejorado recommends researching to know what to expect, but suggests using a more trustworthy source like Planned Parenthood.  

During your visit

Bhakta said patients can expect to answer questions about their medical history, including things like sexual activity and sensitive topics such as miscarriages. Patients can also have conversations more specific to gynecology, including topics like birth control and STD prevention.

Bhakta said visits are a good time for education because sometimes women don’t feel comfortable talking about their bodies with their family members. As a result, patients often mistake normal things for medical issues, and their gynecologist can help decide what is and isn’t a problem.

Being a gynecologist means understanding that the information brought to them is a private and sensitive part of a patient’s life. As a result, most gynecologists will probably be friendly and thoughtful, Lim said. 

It’s essential to have a doctor you trust, especially if you’re sexually active, she said. 

Go in with an open mind and remember that there aren’t any stupid questions. It’s your own body, and you shouldn’t be afraid to learn about it, she said.

Pap smears versus pelvic exams

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally. However, it is preventable, and curable if detected in its early stages.

Bhakta said there are a lot of misconceptions about pap smears. Patients tend to mix them up with cervical exams, but there’s a slight difference many people don’t know about.  

One difference is that most people will start getting pap smears at 21, and before that, only pelvic exams are performed. Though pap smears and pelvic exams feel the same, a difference is that a pap smear collects tissue from the cervix to check for cancer, she said. 

Both pap smears and pelvic exams take place on an examination table in “the child birthing position” that many people see on TV, Bhakta said. 

A thin speculum resembling “a little duckbill” is inserted into the vagina, which opens up to help the physician see the vaginal and cervical tissue, she said. 

That by itself is a pelvic exam; a pap smear requires an extra step. For a pap smear, Bhakta uses a brush-like tool to sample cells from the cervix, which is then used for cervical cancer screening.  

Mejorado said that her pelvic exam wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be. It was a quick, gentle and clean process, she said, and the doctor talks you through everything that’s being done. 

After your visit

From a gynecological perspective, staying healthy post-visit involves paying attention and making sure everything seems normal, Bhakta said. If something changes, reach out to your doctor to let them know what’s going on, she said.

She also recommends practicing safe sex and remembering to use condoms, which are the only contraception to protect you from STDs, she said.  

The importance of visiting your gynecologist 

Mejorado said high school sex education classes usually don’t talk about biologically female bodies in-depth. To her, it’s worth monitoring the changes happening by visiting the gynecologist. 

Even if you read about it on the internet, there will be things you still don’t understand the way a physician would, she said.

Sometimes there are cancers and diseases in the genital tract that can go undiagnosed until they become problematic, Bhakta said, so having someone aware looking out for you is vital.  

For most patients, a gynecologist is likely going to be the doctor you see most frequently in your lifetime, and you should see them as your confidant, she said.

You’ll go through major milestones like first periods or pregnancies with your gynecologist, Bhakta said. They’re someone you can build a relationship with, someone who will walk you through those changes.

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