Keeping on top of your health is easier when your tests are up to date. Here’s what you need to schedule in with your GP, writes Rachel Smith

Breast exams & mammograms

Are you “breast aware”? That means doing regular checks for lumps or anything out of the ordinary in your breasts. “Get into the habit of doing it daily in the shower and you’ll get used to what’s normal, and the cyclical changes that happen with your period,” says Dr Gino Pecoraro, a Brisbane-based gynaecologist and obstetrician and spokesman for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).

Description: It’s something to discuss with your doctor

In your 20s, 30s and 40s…

If you notice a lump, your GP may wish to send you for an ultrasound. Your family history is important, for if many women in your family developed breast cancer at a similar age, you may carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These make you five times more likely to develop breast cancer, but testing for them isn’t a decision to make lightly – the same genes can raise your risk for other cancers, too. “It’s something to discuss with your doctor,” says Pecoraro.

In your 50s and beyond…

As 75 per cent of breast cancers occur in women over 50, mammograms are essential every two years if you’re aged 50 to 69, and they’re free. To find your local BreastScreen service, call 13 20 50.

Pap smears & pelvic exams

According to the National Screening Program, Pap smears should begin when you become sexually active. “And, all women over 18 who have ever had sex and advised to have a smear every two years, even if they no longer have sex,” says Pecoraro. If you have an abnormal smear you may need a repeat or you may need to see a gynaecologist, but follow-ups are essential.

Description: Pap smears & pelvic exams

Advice for all women…

“When you have a Pap smear you should also have a pelvic exam, where we check the size of the uterus, for lumps or bumps on the ovaries, and any sign of endometriosis.”

If you’re over 70…

“If you’ve had two normal Pap smears in the last five years you don’t need to continue unless you wish to,” says Pecoraro.

Did you know?

As more young women are receiving the free cervical cancer vaccine, there are proposed changes to the national screening program, including raising the age to 25 (until age 64), and to decrease the frequency to every three to five years. Conventional Pap smears may also be replaced by liquid-based cytology or HPV DNA testing, which is more sensitive to picking up problems.

Dental checks

We should all be having dental checks every six months – and it’s not just so you can show off your pearly whites, says Sydney-based cosmetic dental surgeon Dr Angelo Lazaris. “Gum disease has been implicated in a host of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” he explains.

In your 20s and 30s…

If you’re planning a family or pregnant, maintaining good oral health is crucial. “During pregnancy gum tissue respond overtly to plaque and can become inflamed,” says Dr Lazaris. “This can release inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream that are implicated in premature births and low birth-weight babies – so avoiding the dentist when pregnant is not a good idea.”

In your 40s…

You may be more predisposed to developing periodontal disease, a destructive form of gum disease, so keeping on top of your check-ups is crucial.

In your 50s and beyond…

Because menopause is implicated in osteoporosis, it’s critical to look after your teeth if you want them to last into your later years, says Lazaris. “Any condition that affects bone quality and density can affect the health of your teeth.”

Skin checks

The earlier skin cancer is detected, the better chance you have of being successfully treated – but how often should you get checked? “It depends on a lot of factors, including your family history, your incidence of moles, your skin type and so on,” says Dr Rob Rosen from Southderm Suburbs Dermatology in Sydney. “Many people get checked annually and more often if they have risk factors or have had a melanoma.”

Description: skin checks

In your teens and 20s…

Start getting your moles looked at when you’re a teenager, as the incidence of melanoma begins during this time. From your early 20s, it’s a god idea to also start checking for non-melanoma skin cancers like BCCs (basal cell carcinoma) and SCCs (squamous cell carcinoma), which start developing a bit later.

In your 50s and beyond…

At this stage, if you’re getting skin cancers and sunspots, you may need to have a skin check up to three or four times a year, says Rosen. Ask your dermatologist what’s best.


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