No one likes personal admin. But taking some time from your day for a self-check, or visit to your GP, could make all the difference to your health. Here are seven checks to add to your to-do list.
Are you one of the 500,000 Australians who has undiagnosed diabetes? “For every one person who knows they have diabetes, there’s somebody else who has it and doesn’t know they have it,” says Karen Crawford, a Credentialled Diabetes Nurse Educator with Diabetes Victoria. It’s the fastest growing chronic illness in Australia, with 1.7 million people believed to have type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes.
Warning signs that a person has type 2 diabetes, accounting for 85 per cent of cases, are often overlooked. “Symptoms are often absent or subtle, so many people think, ‘I’m just getting old’,” says Crawford. People at risk – those with a family history of diabetes, or who are obese and inactive - should talk to their GP, who may recommend an oral glucose tolerance test to record the blood sugar level before and after eating. “A normal finger prick is not a diagnostic tool,” says Crawford.
It’s recommended women aged between 50 and 74 have regular mammograms, but all women should get to know their breasts by doing regular self-checks. “This is particularly important for women with a family history of breast cancer and for women under 40 years of age where a higher density of breast tissue often makes it difficult to detect cancers on mammograms,” says Kathy Chapman, Director of Cancer Programs at Cancer Council NSW. Chapman explains how it’s done: “While standing up, perform circular movements to check each breast for lumps or thickening. Use a mirror, with your hands by your side, to look for changes in colour or shape, dimpling of the skin or pulling in of the nipple.” See your doctor if you notice any changes.
Bowel cancer screenings
If you are over 50, a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) may have recently arrived in your mailbox thanks to the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. The FOBT kit, which you return with a sample of your stool, checks for tiny traces of blood that may be a sign of a polyps or bowel cancer, the second most common type to affect Australians.
“Although the test doesn’t diagnose cancer, it does help your doctor decide whether to do other tests, such as a colonoscopy, which may diagnose cancer,” says Chapman. “The FOBT is only for low-risk people without symptoms of bowel cancer. Individuals with a strong family history of bowel cancer should see their doctor for a screening colonoscopy at 50 years of age, or 10 years before the earliest age a family member was diagnosed with bowel cancer, whichever comes first.”
Sun-loving Australians record some of the world’s highest rates of skin cancer. “It is vital that people get to know their own skin and what is normal for them by checking their skin every three months or as recommended by their GP,” says Chapman. “This is especially important if the person has a family history of melanoma or past experience of skin cancer.”
Not all skin cancers look the same but Chapman says there are some signs to look out for: a spot, mole or freckle that has changed in size, shape or colour, a sore that doesn’t heal, or a spot that bleeds. “If people see anything new or different on their skin, they should see their doctor straightaway,” she says.
Women aged between 18 and 69 are advised to have a Pap test every two years to check for cervical cancer, but that screening process is set to change. From May 2017, new guidelines will recommend women have a five-yearly HPV test.
Falling rates of cervical cancer following the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program (NSCP) in 1991, and a further reduction in pre-cancerous abnormalities among young women since the launch of the national HPV vaccination program in 2007, are behind the change.
“This new test detects the human papillomavirus and is predicted to reduce cervical cancer rates by over 20 per cent,” says Associate Professor Karen Canfell, Director of the Cancer Research Division at Cancer Council NSW. The changes are good news but, she says, “it is essential that women aged 25 or over continue their regular Pap tests every two years until the new program is introduced.”
Sexual health tests
If you are aged between 15 and 29 and are sexually active, you need a sexual health check-up once every 12 months (or more often if you change sexual partners frequently). Another group at risk is gay men. “Frequency of testing depends on their risk but can be up to four times a year,” says Dr Anna McNulty, Director at Sydney Sexual Health Centre. Anyone who falls outside these categories should speak to their doctor about check-ups.
A typical sexual health check involves either a urine test or a swab test for chlamydia and gonorrhoea and also involves a blood test for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis. “Chlamydia is the most common STI, and it’s more prevalent in young people,” says Dr McNulty. As chlamydia is often present without symptoms, especially among women, screening can be necessary to detect it.
Testicular self exams
The best time for men to check their testicles is fresh out of the shower when their scrotum is relaxed. Lumps and other changes can indicate the presence of testicular cancer, most common in men between the ages of 20 and 40. “Most testicular cancers can be found at an early stage, with a lump on the testicle being the first symptom,” says Associate Professor David Smith, Epidemiologist at Cancer Council NSW.
To perform a monthly self-check, Smith says you should “hold the testicle between your thumbs and fingers of both hands and roll it gently between your fingers. Look and feel for any hard lumps or smooth rounded bumps or any change in the size, shape, or consistency of the testicles.”
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