It's time to learn all those things they never taught us in health class - periods, pregnancy and pelvic floor!
I'm a women's health educator, a nerd when it comes to learning "all of the things", and my obsession is teaching women how to take control of their health and create a life they love!
It’s the first week of September which means it’s Women’s Health Week in Australia. This is an event now in its 8th year and is run by Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, an Australian not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to improving women’s health and inspiring women to take control of their health.
This year’s theme is all about Checking In on Your Health – and so in this week’s podcast episode, I’m unpacking the 3 health checks that every woman needs to know about – no matter what age you are or season of life you’re currently in.
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mana Women’s Wellness Podcast. I’m your host Rachel and if you’re listening in real time, it’s the first week of September which means it’s Women’s Health Week in Australia right now. This is an event now in it’s eighth year and it’s run by Jean Hailes for Women’s Health and they are an Australian not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to improving women’s health. Their website is an incredible resource for women full of health information, that helps women to actively manage their own health and wellbeing. In other words, they empower women to take control of their health which is absolutely something that I can get behind!
Women’s health week has been running all of this week and you can head over to the website www.womenshealthweek.com.au to check out all of the incredible resources that they share, events that are being held – most of them online this year, which has a silver lining, because it means you can join in no matter where you are in the world!
Now obviously the stress of Covid and 2020 as a whole has made it harder than ever to look after your health and wellbeing, and so the very fitting theme of Women’s Health Week in 2020 is checking in on your health.
Now unfortunately I am too organised for my own good and I’m recording this episode a couple of weeks before Women’s Health Week has officially kicked off, which means that when recording this I am unfortunately not yet privy to all of the goodness that this year’s Women’s Health Week will be offering, apart from the theme of checking in on your health.
And so, I’ve gotten a little creative and decided to put my own spin on Women’s Health Week, and so today I’m going to be talking about 3 health checks that I think every woman needs to know about – no matter what age you are or season of life you’re currently in.
The first health check I want to talk about today is checking your breasts. This is something I am definitely guilty of not doing enough and I heard a stat not too long ago that during the Covid pandemic and during the first half of 2020, breast cancer diagnoses dropped by something like 30%. And while that may sound like good news, it’s really not. That sudden drop by such a huge amount means that women aren’t getting checked. They’re not getting their breast screens and they’re not going to their doctors when they feel a lump or something doesn’t feel right. So I’m going to kick things off by saying especially right now when the world is an absolute shit-show – monitoring your health and checking in with your doctor when something doesn’t seem right is more important than ever! Your GP is open and available, and if you need medical care or a check-up that isn’t Covid related, I’m pretty confident that your doctor is doing everything in their power to keep you safe when you go for a face to face visit.
So, on that note, let’s dive in to breast checks. It’s so important to be really familiar with how your breasts look and feel, because like any other body part, the more familiar you are, the easier it is to notice when anything changes or doesn’t feel quite right.
So, how to do a breast check, what to look out for and when to have a mammogram is something every woman should know about.
From your 20s and onwards, you should be doing a breast check every month. And because your breasts can change a little throughout your menstrual cycle, you might like to stick to the same time of your cycle each month, just so it’s a bit easier to track these changes. So you might like to do it on Day 1 of your menstrual cycle, the day you get your period and make that a habit. Whatever works for you, as long as you’re checking monthly.
So, here’s how to do it.
Before you jump in the shower, stand in front of a mirror , put your hands on your hips and keep your shoulders straight. And start by looking at your breasts. Look at the shape, the colour and the size of not just your breasts but your nipples.
Next, while still looking in the mirror, raise your arms up in the air and look for the same things again – so, the shape, colour and size of your breasts and your nipples.
Doing a visual check of your breasts – even without touching them yet – will help you to see the actual shape of your breasts, any changes to the usual shape or colour of the nipples or the breast as a whole, any discharge from your nipples as well as any rashes, redness or swelling on the skin.
Next up is actually feeling for changes and a good way to do this is when you are in the shower. When you do this check is a completely personal preference, but when you’re in the shower you’re a little more relaxed and you may find that doing this check on wet skin can be a little more comfortable and may make things easier to feel for changes. You can also do this in bed lying down, again when you’re relaxed and comfortable.
So, what you’re going to do is bent your arm at the elbow and rest it above your head. So, if you’re standing in the shower you might like to rest your hand on your head, or if you’re lying down, you can pop your hand up above your head on a pillow. With the other hand – the hand doing the check – you can open the hand out with a wide palm, keeping your fingers flat so you don’t feel like you’re prodding and poking.
And with a flat palm, you’re going to feel the entire breast area. From your collarbone, all the way to your stomach and your ribs and make sure you’re going under your armpits too. And when you do this, you’re feeling for lumps, any area that’s tender or painful, as well as skin that might be a bit dimpled, flat or anything that feels different from a previous check.
And if you notice any of the following, don’t panic, but go and see your doctor:
These changes include:
Now, mammograms are a type of breast x-ray screening that shows any changes in the breast that are too small for you or your doctor to feel. If you’re over the age of 40, in Australia, there’s an organisation known as Breast Screen and they offer free screening mammograms every 2 years. And that’s for women aged 40 and above. In some states, you’ll get an easy reminder mailed out to you, but you may not, so it’s good to know that this is available to you over the age of 40. And the screen is completely free. If you’re younger than 40, then regular mammograms are not recommended because in younger women the breast tissue is more dense and so it can be more difficult to differentiate between normal and abnormal breast tissue. That’s why it’s so so important to start doing these checks in your 20’s, so you basically have 20 years experience of monthly checks up your sleeve to monitor for changes. If you have a family history of breast cancer, if you’re concerned, speak with your doctor about other screening before the age of 40.
After the age of 40, it’s recommended that you have a mammogram every 2 years, in addition to your monthly breast checks. Remember, Breast Screen in Australia offers this for free. And. These regular reminders usually continue until about age 75. Whether or not you have a screening mammogram will depend on your general health, other medical conditions you may have and of course, personal choice. You don’t need a doctor’s referral, you can jump on to the Breast Screen Australia website and organise a screening mammogram. If you are concerned about changes in your breast, speak with your doctor first.
If you have breast implants, you can still get a screen and there’s no potential harm there. Just let your doctor and the screening centre know this beforehand.
Now I’ve created a super special bonus freebie for today’s episode. It’s a guide to self- breast checks called Check Your Bumps for Lumps and you can grab it in today’s shownotes at www.fertilityco.com.au/healthchecks.
It’s got all of the information I’ve just talked about as well as how to access the Breast Screen Australia website to organise a mammogram.
Now #2 on my list of health checks is a cervical screening test.
A five-yearly cervical screening test has recently replaced the two-yearly pap test. I know this one can be incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s 5 minutes every 5 years and it is your best protection against cervical cancer. It is one of the most preventable cancers, and research shows that the new cervical screening test can actually protect up to 30% more women than the pap test because it’s that much more accurate.
So, the Cervical Screening Test is a simple procedure that checks the health of your cervix. It pretty much looks and feels the same as the Pap test, but it tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV). Your first Cervical Screening Test is due two years after your last Pap test. After that, you will need to have the test only every five years if your results are normal. If your results show anything abnormal, you might have to have the test annually or more often.
So, how is this new test different from the Pap test? A pap test used to look for cell changes in the cervix, whereas the new Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV, human papillomavirus, which can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix. In this way, the new screening test is one step ahead of the Pap test in that it’s looking for changes at the cellular level.
In the new test, the sample is collected in the same way as the Pap test – by taking a small sample of cells from your cervix. The new test will be processed in a different way in the laboratory, but your experience of the test itself is basically the same. As with the Pap test, the procedure might be a bit uncomfortable, but should not hurt. If it does hurt, tell your healthcare provider straight away.
So, what is HPV?
Human papillomavirus is a common virus that can cause changes to cells in your cervix, which in rare cases can develop into cervical cancer. Because the Cervical Screening Test looks for the virus itself that causes cell changes, if your test does not show you have a HPV infection – you can wait five years between tests. Even if your test shows you have HPV, it usually takes 10 or more years for this virus to develop into cervical cancer. It’s important to remember that cervical cancer is a rare outcome of an HPV infection.
So, you will need to start having a cervical screening test if you are between 25 and 74 years old, you have a cervix (meaning in cases such as a hysterectomy you don’t need to have a screen) and have ever been sexually active, you need to have your first Cervical Screening Test two years after your last Pap test. This includes people who have been vaccinated for HPV, which occurs now around late high school.
If you are turning 25, or have never had a Pap test, make an appointment with your doctor to have a Cervical Screening Test. No matter your age, if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain or discharge, or any other symptoms that are not normal for you, you need to discuss these with your doctor sooner rather than later.
Now last, but certainly not least, on the list is the dreaded STI check.
I totally get it, this is the most awkward on the list and because of this it is likely one of those things can keeps falling down right to the bottom of the to-do list. You might even make it to the doctor, only to decide that today is not the day to bring this one up. But if you’re sexually active, getting checked for sexually transmitted infections is an important part of your regular health checks.
So I’ll make it a little easier for you and go through what actually happens:
There are lots of reasons first of all when having an STI check is a good idea. You might be concerned that you have an STI, maybe you have recently found out that a current or previous sexual partner has one, or you might be experiencing symptoms. Your doctor might suggest a screening test while you’re getting a cervical screening test or you might be very proactive already, and make sure you get a regular check as part of your general health checks.
Women who are under 30 and are having sex are recommended to have an STI check at least once a year. But you may need regular checks more often, or when you’re over 30 too. The bottom line – if you’re sexually active, you need to be checked regularly. If you’re not sure, ask your doctor. Everyone’s situation here is a little different so it’s important to get the checks that are right for you.
So, here’s what will happen:
Firstly, when you’re getting an STI check, your doctor will ask you some questions. This will probably get personal as your doctor will need to ask about your sexual history. Answer as honestly as possible and remember that there’s no judgement here, it’s all about getting the facts. Your doctor needs to work out your risk and decide what tests might be right for you.
Questions that the doctor might ask may include:
Again, some of these questions are pretty personal. And again, your doctor isn’t there to judge you or make you feel like your choices are wrong or bad. These are questions they need to ask to assess your risk of particular infections and decide which ones they need to be screening for.
So, here’s the low-down on testing. Depending on your symptoms and risks for different STIs, your doctor will suggest which tests are appropriate for you and how the samples will be collected.
You’ll most likely give a urine sample and have a vaginal exam at the very least.
If you’ve had unprotected oral or anal sex, you may need a throat or anal swab. This means collecting a sample of secretions from the body part – secretions is not a great word to use here I know, but often your doctor will let you collect these samples yourself, which might give you some relief here.
You may need to have a blood test for some STIs, such as hepatitis, syphilis and HIV. This is just like any standard blood test.
Going for an STI check doesn’t mean you will have a complete screen of every single STI. Testing is different for everyone and that’s why it’s so important to answer all of the doctor’s questions as honestly as you can.
Once all your testing is done, you might like to speak with your doctor about contraceptive options or ask any other questions you have about your sexual health. Your results will be back in a couple of weeks, and you might need to make another appointment to see your doctor or you might get your results over the phone.
If you get a positive test result, you’ll go back to your doctor to get the right treatment. This might be a dose of antibiotics and your doctor will go through all of your results and answer your questions. You will need to contact sexual partners so that they can be tested too. Yes this sounds terrifying, but not knowing and infecting other people, as well as putting your reproductive health at risk is a far scarier possibility. Your doctor can talk you through this part too.
Getting a positive result can be scary, but if you’re concerned you might have an STI, getting checked is so important for your long-term health. If you feel like it’s just too damn embarrassing. And you just know that you’ll want to be swallowed up by the ground at the doctor’s office, here are some ways to make it a little easier for you.
Make an appointment with your doctor about something else and then throw it in there during the appointment. Obviously don’t make things up and say your leg is sore when it actually isn’t, you can’t go in there wasting the doctor’s time, but if you need a new prescription or even a medical certificate for work, add it in there too. Your doctor isn’t going to get all embarrassed and make a big thing of it. If they do, that is not ok and get out of there. But they’re medical professionals and they should not be bringing their own beliefs and personal judgement into that room with them.
If you’re not comfortable asking your regular doctor, or you don’t have a regular doctor, you can go to a women’s health clinic or sexual health centre which specialises in sexual health and STI checks.
Remember, these checks are a normal part of healthcare and doctors do them all the time. Your medical records are completely confidential and you should seriously be rewarded for being proactive and getting checked, because there are a lot of people out there who won’t get checked. Which means they don’t know if they have an STI. Which means they could pass it along to you without knowing. Which is why you should be getting a check once a year.
Ok, so with that let’s wrap it up for today.
So, to recap the three health checks we talked about today are the breast check, which you should be doing every single month after age 20 and getting a regular mammogram every 2 years if you’re over 40. Number 2 on the list was the cervical screening test, which is now every 5 years instead of the pap test. And number 3 was the STI check which varies a little from person to person depending on your own situation, but still important for all women.
If you learnt something new or found value in today’s episode, I’d love to hear from you! Send me an Instagram DM, post it on your stories – share a story of yourself listening to the podcast – and let me know what you want me to talk about. This podcast is for you and so I want to talk about the things that are most important to you!
Remember that this episode is celebrating Women’s Health Week and if you want to learn more or find out how you can get involved, you can head over to the website www.womenshealthweek.com.au to check out all of the incredible resources that they share and join in events that are being held.
Don’t forget to grab your freebie created especially for this episode – a guide to self- breast checks called Check Your Bumps for Lumps and you can grab it in today’s shownotes at www.fertilityco.com.au/healthchecks . It’s got all of the information about breast checks that I talked about today as well as how to access the Breast Screen Australia website to organise a mammogram.
I will see you in next week’s episode, where I have a very special guest joining me!
Ok, bye for now and don’t forget that knowledge is power!
When you truly understand your body, you are empowered to make informed decisions and take control of your health!
Until next time.
Check Your Bumps For Lumps – Get your Free Breast Check Guide Here
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I'm obsessed with all things periods, pregnancy, pelvic floor and helping women just like you to navigate all of life's major milestones!
I'm a physiotherapist and natural fertility educator and my passion is teaching women how to take control of their health.