What I Wish I’d Known Before My First Visit to the Gynecologist

Aka all the things I shouldn’t have been so worried about
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Aka all the things I shouldn’t have been so worried about

Seventeen years old and skeptical, I walked into my first gynecologist appointment. Usually, having an official excuse to spice up the dull routine of school made me feel free, but on this day, the sweet taste of liberty was cruelly clouded by my growing apprehension about what was to come.

What are they going to do to me? What are they going to ask? What will they tell my mom?!

My health-conscious mother dutifully scheduled my first gyno appointment months before, but she didn’t exactly give me a description of what was going to happen other than “Pap smear” and “maybe some other tests.” In some ways, I was thankful she left it vague, as I didn’t exactly want to discuss that changing part of my body with my mother of all people. While I loved her dearly, there were some things that I just felt uncomfortable talking about. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything more mortifying.

Still, having gone to an all-girls school, I was probably a bit more aware of womanly checkups than the average high schooler. With no boys around, nothing was stopping us from talking about my first appointment openly during lunch. And everyone was more than thrilled to share what they knew about OB-GYN visits. 

“They stick a tube inside of you, I think,” one said, pointing up her uniform skirt. “But just for a second.”

“A tube? I think it’s more like a shot?” said another.

“It’s a smear, they’re sampling your cells,” said the one (who would later pursue medical school).

“I hear it hurts.”

“My sister said it actually feels refreshing.”

“Ewww.”

“Wait, are you pregnant?”

From this conversation, I quickly realized that I was indeed the first of my friends to embark on "operation: visit the gyno." Unsurprisingly, too. Even though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that teenage girls should go for their first gynecologist exam between the ages of 13 and 15—around when most have already started menstruation—I know many women in their late twenties or even their early thirties who haven’t been to one.

My friends have their reasons why, spanning from presuming they don’t need to go until they’re sexually active (not true), or trying to become pregnant (definitely not true). Other friends don’t go for the same reasons that some people don’t visit the dentist—fear, busyness, or a mix of both.But the fact is, if your body is capable of producing human life—and it is, from the moment our menstrual period starts—you should have a gynecologist readily available to help answer questions and keep your reproductive health in check. In fact, the ACOG considers evaluation of the menstrual cycle as a vital sign (like your pulse rate or temperature) important in assessing overall health status for patients and caretakers.

You may hear practitioners called OB-GYNs, as many specialize in both obstetrics and gynecology, but a gynecologist deals with the female reproductive organs and the breasts, while an obstetrician specializes in pregnancy, labor and birth. Our bodies are complex gifts—and the parts your OB-GYN deals with can be the most complex of all.

So, if I were to give women a pep talk about seeing an OB-GYN—or go back in time and give myself this pep talk—here’s what I would say.

If It Feels Awkward or Weird, You Probably Haven’t Found the Right Doctor

At the time, I was in the fortunate position of having an OB-GYN who had been vetted by my persnickety mother—and my equally persnickety aunt as well. My doctor was kind and warm, entirely professional, plus extremely experienced, putting my woes at bay. Moreover, she was open-minded. No matter how shocking, paranoid, or just plain dumb-sounding the questions I asked my OB-GYN were, she had heard it before, and had answers at the ready. Plus, she was more than willing to take the time to explain the science behind what I may have been experiencing.

These are all traits of a good doctor. You should be seeing someone you trust, and who doesn't pressure you on things like birth control, in either direction. And a good doctor should set you at ease. For me, when it came to the exam and Pap smear, it was painless. Sure, it wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was surprisingly quick, leaving me to think, "Wait, that was it?" Seeing a gynecologist you trust will make it more likely that you'll be comfortable for the whole procedure.

If you need to find a doctor or aren't satisfied with the one you have now, check out Verily's guide on how to choose a good gynecologist.

It’s a Judgment-Free Zone

As my OB-GYN once told me, “I’ve heard it all.” Consider this the one person in your life whom you can ask all those weird questions about sex, your period, your discharge, your nether regions, and fertility. While it’s true that all doctors deal with extremely private information, OB-GYNs by far have heard the most intimate stories—but they have also been trained to see it strictly from a health perspective.

Hence, not only will they not judge you, but they will also provide you expert advice no matter where you’re at and are legally bound to not share any of your private medical records with anyone else. (Not even your mom, 17-year old self).

So, if it’s something you’re concerned about, don’t hold back. Maybe you're questioning what you did in the backseat of the car with Bobby last summer, for example, or you're confused about the texture of your discharge, or the timing of your period, or why sex might be painful—or even concerned about preparing for sex—this is the one person in the world whom you can ask about your feminine health worries and know that your woes will be professionally addressed.

This is a vitally important relationship for your health. If you feel like you can't rely on your doctor to give you good advice, or you don't feel comfortable sharing with her, find someone you can trust. You owe it to yourself.

It’s an Opportunity to Better Understand Your Cycle and Protect Your Fertility

Your menstrual cycle can be one of the most insightful ways to understand your health. And if you find the right OB-GYN, they can be the most influential partner in helping you discover what’s normal, spot what’s not, and investigate what’s worrisome. For instance, while there are a lot of things that might cause a heavy period—including stress or lifestyle changes—your OB-GYN can help you uncover if it’s something more complicated, such as a polyp growth, pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, or something more serious, like reproductive cancers.

Many doctors recommend taking a Pap smear with an HPV test at least once a year if you are sexually active and every three years if you're not. It is crucial to helping prevent cervical cancer. While it’s a slow-moving cancer, it’s important to note that 80 percent of women who were diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer did not have a Pap smear in the past five years.

You Get a Peek Into the World of Pregnancy

Before I went to the OB-GYN for the first time, pregnancy was very much an intangible. But after sitting in the waiting room with several pregnant women, passing the ultrasound room, and looking at all the pictures of babies my doctor has brought into this world, reality hit me. I couldn’t help but be reminded about how awesome the female body is—and how our health is so intrinsically linked with the creation of human life.

While at 17, this seemed a million light years away (or, like, ten), I realized then how important it was to establish a healthy relationship with my OB-GYN. Not only did she help me understand all the complicated, messy yet beautiful biology that makes us women, but she also brought to light how closely my reproductive health was linked to my ability to become a mom, and as a result, the health of my future children. It was mind-blowing. While I didn't necessarily want children at the time, it was crazy to learn how my actions at 17 could effect my non-existent children. In fact, fostering this solid relationship with my OB-GYN greatly eased my mind and squashed many anxieties when the real time came to try having kids.

Even if you’re not sexually active or have zero desire to have kids, going to an OB-GYN is not only an eye-opening experience, but it’s also an imperative step for your health. So ask your friends and relatives, study reviews, and call up an OB-GYN right now if you’ve never been. And if you’re embarrassed about being so late to the game—don’t worry. Your OB-GYN has heard it all before.

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