5 Medical Tests Every Latina Should Have Done Now

While certain diseases strike every ethnic group, Latinas are affected at a much higher rate and have a poorer prognosis for many. Accessibility to healthcare, education, prevention and early detection are key to making significant changes within our communities. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself healthy and safe, according to Dr. Helen Troncoso, Ms. New York America and a women’s health advocate. 

1. Medical Tests: Mammogram


Why? Latinas get breast cancer at an earlier age and are more likely to die from breast cancer than other women. We are also diagnosed at a later, less treatable stage and have larger tumors.  

How is the test done? A mammogram is an x-ray of your breasts. Your breasts are placed between two plates and then compressed momentarily. While not the most pleasant thing in the world, any discomfort from the compression lasts seconds. Newer guidelines recommend a mammogram starting at age 50 if you do not have any other risk factors, or a family history of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society still recommends starting them when you are 40 years old. A clinical breast exam is given by your health provider starting at age 20 and at least every three years after. While a self breast exam is nowhere near as effective, young women should still feel comfortable with knowing how their breasts feel and report any changes or concerns to their doctor.

You should know that the reason mammograms don’t work as well on younger women is because our breasts are more dense, making it harder to spot tumors. Breasts implants in the past were not associated with causing an increased risk for breast cancer. However, last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), announced there might be a possible association with anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL), a very rare but treatable form of cancer. The FDA recommends those with implants and no symptoms to screen their breasts regularly, and no need to remove the implants.

2. Medical Tests: Pap Test

Pap test or pap smear with an HPV test

Why? Latina women are twice as likely to have cervical cancer and 1.5 times more likely to die from cervical cancer as compared to any other ethnic race. Cervical cancer is very preventable. Over 80% of women who die from cervical cancer did not have a pap smear within five years.

What is cervical cancer? Cervical cancer is a cancer that starts in the cells of the cervix, the lowest part of the uterus (where the fetus develops), caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most commonly transmitted sexually transmitted infection and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that at least 50% of sexually active people will get it sometime within their lifetime.

How is the test done? It’s a very quick exam performed by your doctor during a pelvic exam.  A very small brush is used to collect cells from your cervix. They are put onto a slide and sent to a lab for analysis. A pap smear will tell you if there is an infection or abnormal cells that may need to be monitored or treated further.

When should I get this test done? New guidelines state that women should start at 21 years of age and then every three years after that. Women 30-65 years of age should also have a HPV test done along with a pap test.  An HPV test is done just like a pap smear, often using the same cells collected. A pap test lets you know if you have abnormal cells, and an HPV test lets you know if one of the high-risk strains of the HPV virus is present in your body. Doing an HPV test along with a pap smear is proven to be a better way to know if you are at risk for developing cervical cancer. Women over 65 who have had three normal pap smears in a row within ten years and given the ok by their doctor, can discontinue having pap smears. Also, depending on what type of hysterectomy you had, you may also be able to discontinue having pap smears.

You should know that cervical cancer is usually symptomless until it’s at a much later stage.  If you’re under 30 years of age and have HPV, your body will usually take care of it on its own. There are also 2 vaccines available, Gardasil and Cervarix for women 26 years of age and younger. It’s a series of three shots given over six months and one of the vaccines (Gardasil) can also prevent genital warts (also caused by HPV). It is most effective before sexual activity or exposure to the HPV virus.  

3. Medical Tests: Cholesterol

Cholesterol Screening with blood pressure check up

Why? Heart disease is the number one killer of Latina women.  Latina women between the ages of 35 and 64 are 1.3 times more likely to suffer from a stroke than any other ethnic group.  

How is the test done? Your doctor will usually tell you to fast 9 to 12 hours beforehand. A small blood sample is drawn and sent to a lab for analysis. There are two types of cholesterol that make up your total cholesterol; LDL (think L for low) -- you want this number to be low because it can clog the arteries that carry blood to your heart. HDL (think H for high) is the other type. A higher number for this is better because it takes the bad cholesterol out of your body and keeps it from clogging up your arteries.

Total cholesterol: less than 200 md/dl is ideal

Borderline high: 200-239 md/dl

Dangerously high: 240md/dl or higher

Also ask your doctor what your triglycerides are. Triglycerides are like a bad ex-boyfriend you can’t get rid of, and is a blood fat that travels with cholesterol. Anything greater than 150 mg/dl is considered to be high.

Find out what your blood pressure is also. Having a high blood pressure can also damage your heart and organs. Having a high cholesterol level and high blood pressure increases your risk significantly for developing heart disease.  You want to maintain a blood pressure lower than 120/80. High blood pressure is 140-159/90-99. Your doctor will check your blood pressure during annual wellness visits, and may recommend for you to monitor it at home regularly. If you have high cholesterol, you will probably have high blood pressure also.

How often should I get this test done? Check your cholesterol once every five years starting at 20 years of age. Your doctor may want you to get a test before that if you have certain risk factors. Blood pressure is checked annually during a physical, or can also be checked more frequently at home depending on what your doctor recommends.

You should know that instead of getting on a temporary diet, looking at this as a lifestyle change is a better approach. Small modifications in the types of food you eat and how much exercise you do, is always better and healthier than crash dieting. If your doctor puts you on medications to help lower your cholesterol – take them.  Many people will gradually decrease or even stop taking medications with weight loss and lifestyle modifications. Don’t smoke, make healthier eating choices and maintain a healthy weight. Do we have to give up our arroz blanco or mofongo completely for the rest of our lives? No, and you probably wouldn’t do it if even if I told you to anyway. But – you can’t eat it every day! By the way – healthy does not necessarily mean skinny!  

4. Medical Tests: Diabetes

Diabetes screening

Why? Latina women are 17 times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic women. We also have higher levels of gestational diabetes than non-Hispanic women.

What is diabetes? Type 1 diabetes is what happens when your body destroys the cells that make insulin, which regulates blood glucose. Type 2 is much more common and is insulin resistance. Your body does not make enough insulin or your cells ignore it. Gestational diabetes is high blood glucose while pregnant. Some pregnancy hormones can block insulin from doing its job. Women will be tested around the midpoint of pregnancy and will often give birth to larger babies. While this does put the mother at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes afterwards, for many it will resolve after giving birth.

How is the test done? Usually one of two ways, a fasting plasma glucose test or an oral glucose tolerance test.  For the fasting plasma glucose tolerance test your doctor will ask you to fast for eight hours and then draw your blood. Anything from 100-125 mg/dl is diagnosed as prediabetic. Anything above that is diagnosed as Type 2 Diabetes. If you have the oral glucose tolerance test, your blood will be taken before and then two hours after drinking premeasured glucose. Your doctor is looking to see how your body is able to process excess sugar. A range of 140-199 mg/dl is considered prediabetic, with anything over that considered to be Type 2 diabetes. If you fall within a normal range, you can test your blood glucose levels every three years. If you are prediabetic, you should get tested every one to two years. 

You should know that like high cholesterol and blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes is easily treatable and often preventable. If you have diabetes, learn how to do regular self-checkups on your feet. Diabetes damages your nerves and causes decreased sensation which means you may have trouble feeling temperature, pressure or an injury. Something as simple as an ingrown toenail left undetected can become a serious infection. Problems with vision and healing slowly from an injury are also typical for diabetics.

5. Medical Tests: HIV

HIV test

Why? According to the CDC, the rates of infection of HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, was four and a half times higher among Hispanic women as compared to white women.

How is the test done? The most common exam is the HIV antibody test which looks for the presence of HIV antibodies in your blood.  Antibodies are made in response from your immune system in an attempt to fight infection. A small sample of blood is taken and sent to a laboratory for further analysis. This test requires at least two visits to your healthcare provider.  You can also get a rapid HIV testing and have your results within thirty minutes. A swab from the inside of your mouth or blood from a finger stick is taken. Most people prefer this exam because it only requires one trip to your provider and results are given fairly quickly. If your test does come out positive, you will have to take another test to confirm your results.

You should know that Latina women are infected mostly by having unprotected heterosexual sex. Having a sexually transmitted disease or infection like genital warts which breaks through the skin, allows HIV to enter your bloodstream more easily. Just like it only takes one time to get pregnant, it only takes one time having unprotected sex to get HIV. It’s important to get tested.