African-American women lead in the most cases of HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as uterine fibroids and HPV, which causes cervical cancer. We have five-year plans for our careers, we’ve mapped out our relationships (or so we think), and still manage to fit in an annual getaway with girls. Why not put that much effort into investing in our reproductive health? Here are a few of many things every woman should know to ensure the healthiest body possible.

How Often You Need a Pap Smear

Ladies, a Pap smear is a necessary evil, but you’ll be glad to know you no longer have to have them as frequently as before. The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) introduced new Pap smear guidelines last year, suggesting that women, regardless of sexual activity, should begin getting Pap smears at age 21 every two years, instead of annually. If you’re over age 30 and have had three consecutive normal Pap smears, you may have them every three years.

We aren’t off the hook though. Pap smears may not happen as often, but we still have to visit the exam room for an Annual Well Woman Exam. It’s a common mistake to confuse this exam with the Pap smear. “A Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer,” says Titilola Fadahunsi, MD, Obstetrics and Genecology resident physician in Memphis, Tennessee. “A lot of women think if there’s a speculum inside of them, they’re getting a Pap smear, but it’s not true.” An annual exam should include a breast exam, a pelvic exam, testing for STDs and other screenings. Use that time with your physician to ask questions and express health concerns.

If You Have Uterine Fibroids

Women, but especially African-American, women are plagued with fibroids, non-cancerous growths that grow in the uterus or along in the uterine wall. African-American women are three times as likely to have uterine fibroids as other women, according to WomensHealth.gov. Also, family history and age increase prevalence. While many women have several fibroids that go unnoticed, others experience extreme pain, heavy bleeding during the menstrual cycle, anemia and sometimes, but rarely, infertility. If your period is irregular or more painful than usual, consult with your physician to schedule an exam or ultrasound and seek treatment.

When You Ovulate

Whether you are avoiding pregnancy like the plague or you’ve gotten the “baby bug,” knowing your likeliest time to become pregnant is always good to know. “It’s gets to be a concern when you are trying to conceive,” Fadanhunsi says. “If you’re sexually active, you should be on birthday. If you’re not on birth control, I strongly recommend you do so.”

Most women generally ovulate  between Day 11 – Day 21 of their cycle, counting from the first day of the last menstrual cycle, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Day 1 of your cycle is the first day your menstrual flow begins, and every woman’s cycle length varies from 28 to 32 days. Know the symptoms of ovulation, which are usually heightened body heat, a discharge and increased libido. If you need to keep track of your ovulation period, there’s an app for that! Try P & G Always ® Me Period and Ovulation Tracker for your iPhone or iPad, or an online resource, MyMonthlyCycles.com.

The Right Birth Control Method for You

The most recent National Survey of Family Growth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that roughly 44 percent of women did not use a contraceptive before an unintended pregnancy because they didn’t think they could become pregnant. Sexually active women should not acquire STDs or unintended pregnancies because they don’t know the vast options in contraceptives.

However, statistics also say that oral contraception leads in the most popular birth control form with usage by 28 percent of women ages 15-44 and condoms following behind at only 16 percent. The Pill may be popular, but it may not be for you if you can’t remember to take it daily.

“If you use birth control (oral contraceptives) the way it’s supposed to be used, it’s pretty effective, but a lot of women don’t,” says Fadanhunsi. “The better contraceptive depends on the person.”

Don’t use condoms because you’re allergic to latex? Consider lambskin or the female condom, the NuvaRing or if you need more long-term birth control, try an IUD like Mirena. Emergency contraceptive options, such as Plan B One-Step, are available at health centers and drug stores, but consult with your physician first before taking them.

Check out more contraceptive options at PlannedParenthood.com.

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  • jane

    “Ovulation begins generally 12-14 days into your cycle (day 1 of your cycle is the first day your menstrual flows begins), but every woman is different.”

    I thought ovulation begins generally 12-14 days BEFORE your cycle….no??

    • Jane,

      Per the American Pregnancy Association:

      “On average, a woman’s cycle normally is between 28-32 days, but some women may have much shorter cycles or much longer ones. Ovulation can be calculated by starting with the day the last menstrual period (LMP) starts or by calculating 12-16 days from the next expected period. Most women ovulate anywhere between Day 11 – Day 21 of their cycle, counting from the first day of the LMP.”

      Also, see this source:
      http://asktheexperts.plannedparenthood.org/?p=229

      Many women experience ovulation around Day 14-16, which is the same as occurring 12-16 days BEFORE your cycle, if you have a regular 28-day cycle. Every woman will be different though, and that’s where recognizing the signs of ovulation is important, as opposed to only knowing the day. Perhaps, that needs clarification.

      I will have my medical source post a reply, as well. Thanks for your question.

    • Nina

      The confusion here is that your “cycle” (as in the entire menstrual cycle, not just your period) begins on the fist day of your period. So first day of period = day 1 of cycle. As Alisha said above, depending on how long your cycle actually is, ovulation can occur 12-16 days before your next cycle (or next period), which is the same as saying it occurs about day 12-15 of your current cycle.

      Hope that made sense :-)

  • T-Strang

    Thank you for mentioning fibroids. At age 25 an ob/gyn discovered a uterine fibroid (it was 6 centimeters then) to make a long story short it grew to 10 centimeters during a pregnancy that ended at 16 weeks. 1 robotic myomectomy (fibroid removal surgery) later and I am fibroid free!

    I think about all of the women dealing with these benign tumors that are not aware of them. Fibroids are common and while ALL ARE NOT problematic, some can be. Reproductive Health Awareness is a must.

    **p.s. remember Mya on “Girlfriends” had one too