4 Screening Tests Women Fear

Millions of Americans delay-- or even skip--key health screenings such as mammograms, MRIs, and colonoscopies for just one simple reason: fear. Because overcoming your dread of these exams can literally save your life, we gathered experts' best tips for getting through them with minimal discomfort--plus news about the latest high-tech alternatives.

Mammogram

What It Does

By taking x-rays of a flattened breast, mammography can detect 80 to 90 percent of breast cancers--even ones too tiny to be detected by a manual breast exam. A Swedish study found that regular mammograms can cut the death rate of women in their 40s by up to 29 percent.

The Fear Factor Starting from near your underarm, a technician will tug your flesh until it's positioned between two plastic paddles and then compress it, which can hurt, especially if your breasts are small, dense, or sensitive. Most mammograms take only about 10 seconds of compression per view--just 40 seconds in total.

Ace That Test!

Apply a Topical Painkiller

In one study, women who applied an OTC 4 percent lidocaine gel to their breasts before their mammograms reported significantly less pain during the test. Two hours before your appointment, apply no more than 1 ounce of gel; within 1 hour, wash thoroughly with warm water (gel ingredients can interfere with image results).

Are There Any Alternatives?

For women at average risk of breast cancer, mammograms are the standard, says Elizabeth Thompson, president of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. For women with very dense breasts or a family history of breast cancer, ultrasound, a painless procedure that uses sound waves to detect abnormalities, is sometimes used along with mammograms. Insurance rarely covers it as a solo preliminary screening.

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More from Prevention:

8 Doctors Tips to Ace Your Next Test

20 Biggest Health Excuses That Hold You Back

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28 Seriously Heart Healthy Habits

Colonoscopy

What It Does This procedure is the most effective way for your doctor to look for polyps and other precancerous growths in your colon; if she finds any, she can usually remove them painlessly on the spot through the scope itself. The procedure can last from 30 minutes to an hour.

The Fear Factor It's not the thought of having a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end (a scope) inserted in one's rectum that makes most people cringe (you'll be sedated)--it's the colon-clearing prep you have to do the day before. After being on a 24-hour clear liquid diet, you must drink either one-half or a full gallon of a salty prep liquid at least 7 hours before the exam. The drink will make you empty your bowels repeatedly until there's nothing but clear liquid coming out. This can sometimes cause abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Ace That Test!

Geat a Head Start The less you have in your gut before you start flushing out your colon, the easier the process will be. "I approach the prep as if it were a cleansing diet," says Dede Cummings, coauthor of Living with Crohn's & Colitis. "A few days beforehand, I start eating smaller, lighter meals, like skinless baked chicken, rice cakes, and applesauce."

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