It’s likely this test isn’t even on your to-do list (are we right?), but it should be. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3.1 million Aussies suffer from high blood pressure – a risk factor for heart disease – which is the biggest killer of women in Oz. Another reason you need to get checked: “There are often no signs or symptoms of high blood pressure, you can have it and feel fine,” says Professor James Tatoulis, chief medical adviser at the National Heart Foundation.
As a guide, normal blood pressure is generally around 120/80 mmHg – much higher or lower than that and you may need further tests.
☛ How often At least every two years, says Tatoulis. Women who are on the pill should also be screened regularly since the pill can affect BP. First thing in the morning is the best time (you know, before the kids/traffic/your boss gets you all worked up).
☛ What to expect A sphygmomanometer cuff (inflatable strap) is wrapped around your upper arm and a stethoscope placed at your inner elbow. The cuff is inflated and a reading is taken as it deflates. Sit with your feet flat on floor, legs uncrossed and with your back and arm supported. Ask your GP to do a reading next time you go. Most pharmacies do BP checks, too.
Fact: 290 Aussies develop diabetes (type 1 or type 2) every day, according to the Australian Diabetes Council. If left untreated, the high levels of blood glucose associated with diabetes can damage nerves and blood vessels, leading to complications like heart and kidney disease, blindness, amputation.
☛ How often Start going for your annual screenings from age 35 – or 20 if you have a family history (screening is to detect type 2 diabetes only). Don’t skip the test if you’re overweight – especially if you carry most of your weight around your middle – have high cholesterol or blood pressure, or are of Asian, Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander descent – these are all high-risk factors.
☛ What to expect A blood test will be done to measure your overnight fasting plasma glucose. Sometimes an oral glucose tolerance test may be ordered when your result is borderline – basically, the oral glucose tolerance test measures the rate at which glucose is cleared from your blood by taking measurements after a period of fasting and after you consume a sweet drink. If you have persistent thrush infections, ask to be tested for diabetes, as this is a common symptom. Get on it.
“Regular breast screening is the most effective way to find breast cancer early, before any symptoms are noticed and when treatment is likely to be most successful,” says BreastScreen Victoria radiologist, Dr Jill Evans. Mammograms pick up abnormal calcium deposits or masses in breast tissue; if these are found, you may need to go for an ultrasound and/or biopsy.
☛ How often Every two years from the age of 40. If there are any concerns or a family history, you can start your screenings earlier. If your mum had or has breast cancer, it’s a good idea to have a mammogram 10 years before the age she was diagnosed.
☛ What to expect Your breasts will be compressed between two plates for a few seconds while images are taken. For comfort, it’s best to have a mammogram seven to 10 days after the beginning of your last period.
OK so they’re uncomfortable… but having a pap test every two years can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by up to 90 per cent, according to PapScreen Victoria. You won’t find many tests with better odds than that.
☛ How often Australia’s National Cervical Screening Program says to book in with your GP or gyno every two years (once you’re sexually active). Only 57 per cent of Aussie women are currently following this advice. Are you due?
☛ What to expect A speculum is inserted into your vagina to hold the walls apart so your doc can get a clear view of your cervix. A spatula or brush is then inserted to take a swab.
“This may feel a bit strange or uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful, and it only takes a minute,” says Hiranthi Perera, program manager at PapScreen Victoria. Your doctor will then remove the speculum and you can get dressed.
“The cells are then examined at a pathology lab for any abnormalities,” explains Perera. The results from your pap test are usually available from your GP or gyno within two weeks.
Skin and mole check
Australia’s got heaps to be proud of: dual-flush dunnies, Tim Tams and the invention of wi-fi (true story). But some claims to fame we shouldn’t be so stoked about: “Our incidence of skin cancer is one of the highest in the world,” says Terry Slevin, chair of the skin cancer committee at Cancer Council Australia.
“Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they’re 70.” Oh. “The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better your chance of avoiding surgery or, in the case of a serious melanoma or other skin cancer, potential disfigurement or even death.”
☛ How often Once a year from your 20s, depending on your skin type and family history. Women with fair skin and numerous moles may need to start screening earlier. If you have a mole that bothers you at any age, get it checked out immediately, advises Slevin.
☛ What to expect You’ll need to strip down to your undies and have your whole body checked. Your GP or dermatologist might use a dermatoscope (a magnifying glass that eliminates reflection). Patients with multiple moles may benefit from mole mapping: this involves recording individual moles for later comparison. Suspicious-looking* moles will be monitored or cut out and sent to a lab for examination.
*It’s unlikely they’ll be wearing an overcoat, trilby and dark sunnies, but that would be cool.
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