Are these tests still safe and effective when you’re pregnant? The answer: It depends.
It's standard practice to have one at your first prenatal visit. If it's normal, you won't need another until after your baby is born. So as soon as you go for your postpartum follow-up, six to eight weeks after the delivery, ask to have one done. By this time, anything that might interfere with the cancer test -- an inflamed cervix from a vaginal birth or the moderate discharge that follows cesarean section -- will have dissipated, says Edward Grendys, M.D., formerly of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute at the University of South Florida.
The only time you may need to have an additional Pap smear during pregnancy is if your last reading was abnormal. "In this case, the test may be repeated two or three months into the pregnancy," says Dr. Grendys.
The American Cancer Society advocates that you familiarize yourself with the look and feel of your breasts, and watch for changes. One of the ways to do this is through a breast self-exam. Normally, it's recommended that women who perform self-exams do so a week after the first day of their period, but since you're not menstruating, pick a day when you'll remember to do them (say, the first of each month). If you're nursing, examine yourself immediately following a feeding, since it's easier to detect lumps when the breasts are empty. Be aware, though, that clogged lactiferous ducts can cause masses that feel suspicious, but are nothing to be alarmed about. Try placing a warm compress on the lump for about ten minutes, then see if it dissolves after the next feeding. If it doesn't, call your doctor; if it does go away, mention it the next time you see her, just to be safe.
Typically, they're recommended for women 40 and over, so it's best to wait to have one until a few weeks postpartum or after you've stopped breastfeeding, since X rays of engorged breasts are more difficult to read accurately. Once you start having mammograms, the ideal time to schedule one is in the first half of the menstrual cycle, a study at the University of Toronto found. The cycle starts on the first day of bleeding. Women who had them in the second half of their cycle were twice as likely to have cancer go undetected.
Daryn Eller is a freelance writer.