Raise your hand if you’ve got a million unanswered questions about your body.
That’s a lot to keep track of - especially when any one (or all of them) start acting totally different than they typically do.
*cue the internet*
I know we’ve all logged onto Google at one point or another to try to figure out exactly what’s going on with our bodies, only to get a dozen different answers from a dozen different (mostly unreliable) sources.
So you head to the doctor to get the real deal. But maybe your nerves kick in and you settle for an answer that really wasn’t even close to what you were looking for.
If this sounds all too familiar, don’t worry.
We got you.
Teaming up with our gyno guru, Dr. Sherry, we’ve compiled a list of commonly asked (and now answered) questions. So grab a beverage of your choice and get comfy, ‘cuz you’re gonna wanna stick around for this one.
How often should I do a breast self-exam?
You should start becoming familiar with your breasts in your teen years.
By doing breast self-exams from an early age, you not only arm yourself with knowledge, but may also find that you’re more successful in sticking to a monthly routine.
Speaking of monthly, you’ll want to set aside a minute to check your breasts every month during the week after your period. This is the time when your estrogen hormonal effects tend to be less noticeable on your breast tissue.
How do I do a breast self-exam?
It could be said that you and your breasts have had a bit of a long-term relationship, so it’s good to know that YOU are the most important person when it comes to identifying any changes that may be happening. Specifically when it comes to breast shape, size, skin changes or nipple discharge.
Aside from these more obvious changes, you’ll want to pay attention to any abnormal lumps or bumps.
- Stand in front of the mirror with your hands on your hips and take a good look. Notice anything different?
- Raise your arms up over your head. Notice anything different now? Pay special attention to nipple shape and color.
- Look to see if there’s any discharge or fluid coming from your nipples.
- Check for lumps. To do this, lay on your back and put one hand over the top of the breast you’re examining. With your other hand, run your fingertips firmly over your breast tissue in a circular motion. Think of the breast as a plus (+) sign, purposefully feel each quarter. Once you’ve finished doing this with your breasts, move to your underarms and do the same.
- Sit up (or stand) and check your breasts in a similar way as you did in step 4, but from this new position.
Pro Tip: Sometimes checking your breasts in the shower (when the skin is wet and slippery) can make identifying abnormalities easier.
How do I do a breast self-exam if I have breast implants?
You can go ahead and check your breasts the same way you would if you didn’t have implants. You may just want to ask your doctor or surgeon to show you where the edges of your implants are so you don’t mistaken them for an abnormality - though it’s recommended you visit your doctor if you feel anything of concern.
How do I do a breast self-exam after a mastectomy or top surgery?
You can go ahead and perform your exam the same way you would prior to your surgery. You may notice that the scar tissue can be hard and irregular, but once you become familiar with this area you’ll be able to identify whether it’s scarring or new changes to your breast tissue.
Speaking of breasts, what changes can I expect to them during pregnancy?
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, your breasts may become painful, swollen and enlarged - and can even increase by as much as two or three sizes. Once you’ve finished breastfeeding, they should reduce back in size.
I’ve just had a baby. When can I expect my period to return?
If you decide not to breastfeed, your period should return approximately six to eight weeks after delivery.
If you decide to breastfeed, your hormones will keep you from ovulating so you may not get your period for a few months after delivery.
As you introduce your baby to other food sources, the amount of breastfeeding you do will decrease. This should trigger ovulation and the return of your periods.
What else can we expect during that postpartum period?
From the moment the baby delivers until your body fully recovers, you’re in what is sometimes referred to as the 4th Trimester, or the postpartum period. This time can be extremely overwhelming both emotionally and physically.
While the first 6 weeks can be the most challenging, this period can last through the first year - though every person feels the length and intensity of this very differently.
Due to hormonal havoc, up to 80% of new mothers may experience the ‘baby blues’ for a couple of weeks after delivery. During this time they may feel depressed, anxious, upset and even frustrated. Crying for no reason, sleepless nights and feeling like you aren’t thinking clearly are all common, but temporary and manageable.
However, 10 to 15% of new mothers may experience postpartum depression. For these, all of the feelings mentioned before are more intense and can be debilitating to the point of being unable to perform their daily routine, including caring for their new baby.
Symptoms of postpartum depression may include:
- Severe mood swings
- Intense irritability and anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Overwhelming sadness
- Uncontrollable crying
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to sleep
- Feeling inadequate as a mother
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
- Suicidal thoughts
Be sure to make an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing feelings of depression after delivery, especially if they continue to get worse with time.
How can I tell if I have a high or low cervix?
A good tool of measurement for finding your cervix is your finger. You'll want to feel for what is similar-feeling to your chin (during menstruation) or the tip of your nose (when not menstruating).
Throughout your cycle you can expect subtle changes to the position of your cervix. During ovulation, the cervix may appear to be higher up in the vagina compared to other times of the month - like menstruation, when your cervix sits noticeably lower.
Those who have had a vaginal delivery may notice that their cervix appears to be lower in the vagina than it previously was. With each additional delivery, the cervix may continue to move lower.
Chronic coughing or straining exercise can also cause the cervix to sit lower in the vagina.
When do I need to start getting pelvic exams?
Regular pelvic exams should start as soon as you become sexually active.
You can expect these exams to be performed during your annual wellness exam or if you’re visiting your doctor to check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or any other vaginal concerns such as itching, swelling or an unusual odor.
Some other reasons you may have a pelvic exam performed are for period irregularities, pelvic pain, painful sex, or suspicion of endometriosis, fibroids or cysts.
What can I expect during my first pelvic exam?
During your pelvic exam you’ll find yourself laying on a table, naked from the waist down, with your feet in silver stirrups. A paper drape will be given to you to cover the lower half of your body.
Pro Tip: The stirrups could be a bit chilly, so you may want to keep your socks on.
Regardless of where you’re located, it’s quite common for doctors to use the same non-medical instructions of having you ‘scootch down’ the table. This means you’ll want to slide your hiney to the edge of the table so your knees are bent toward the ceiling.
Your doctor will then take a seat between your legs and push the drape back slightly to uncover your vulva and vagina. With sterile gloves on, the doctor will check for any visible abnormalities.
Next your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina to perform the pap smear. During the pap smear, the doctor inserts an instrument called a brush and broom. These are used to gently collect cervical tissue samples. Once the sample is collected, the brush and broom are placed in a sterile container to be tested by a pathologist for any abnormalities.
After the pap smear, your doctor will perform the bimanual exam. To do this, the doctor will insert a gloved index and middle finger into your vagina while placing the opposite hand on your lower abdominal area. This is to check for abnormalities in the uterus and ovaries.
Once this is done, you and your doctor will have an opportunity to discuss what was found during the exam.
Test results typically come back within a couple of weeks, and unless there’s something they’d like to follow up on, you shouldn’t have to do this again for a whole year.
Are there certain supplements I should be taking regularly?
Ultimately, the best way to get all of your necessary vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is through a well-balanced (aka colorful) diet.
Unfortunately, the typical diet can leave gaps in your daily nutritional requirements, which means you’re missing out on vital elements your body needs to stay healthy.
This is where supplements come in, but simply taking a multi-vitamin should be enough to insure you’re getting whatever may be missing from your diet.
Should I take any additional supplements when I’m on my period?
Not necessarily, but if you’re experiencing super heavy periods you may want to add some iron.
What other ways can my period affect the rest of my body?
Outside of the well-known symptoms of bloating, swelling, water retention, weight gain, acne, mood swings, depression, anxiety and fatigue - some of you can expect gastrointestinal issues. These gastrointestinal issues can come in many forms such as nausea, diarrhea and constipation - with diarrhea being the most common.
Others may experience anything from a heightened sense of smell to headaches and night sweats.
How can I tell when my first period is going to start?
Your first period can show up any time between the ages of 8 and 14, with the most common time being around 11 to 12 years of age.
Prior to your period starting, you’ll begin developing breasts. From there you may notice hair under your arms, on your legs and vagina, and may experience some acne.
About six months prior to your period starting, you may even notice an increase in clear vaginal discharge.
These are all great indications that your body is changing and your period may be arriving soon.
How about peri-menopause? How can I tell when that’s going to start?
Signs of peri-menopause may include:
- Erratic, irregular or heavy periods
- Night sweats
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Short term memory loss
- Trouble focusing
- Lower sex drive
These changes can begin occurring between the ages of 40 and 50 years old, with symptoms lasting up to 10 years before going into menopause - which most commonly happens around the age of 51.
We told you there was a lot of information coming your way!
As always, we recommend reaching out to your own doctor if you’re experiencing anything of concern. Until you do, thanks to Dr. Sherry for providing us with answers to some of our most commonly asked questions.