Guide to The Regular Health Checks You Should Be Having

Guide to the Regular Health Checks You Should Be Having

Health Checks Ensure You Stay Healthy

Introduction

Regular health checks ensure you stay fit and healthy.  Many health problems are not apparent without health checks.  Regular checks you do yourself keep you in tune with your body.  A medical practitioner must also perform some checks.  This article will explain why it is important to have regular health checks, including several you can do yourself.  It also includes a recommended schedule for health checks that your doctor will do.

The advantages of a regular health check-up

The most important reason to have regular health check-ups is the early detection of diseases such as heart disease and cancer.  Treatment is much more successful if caught at an early stage, before complications have set in.  Many life threatening diseases have little to no symptoms.  For example, kidney failure.  Other health issues may have symptoms that are vague or mistaken for other conditions.  Symptoms such as fatigue can relate to many different causes. Vague symptoms are often explained by lifestyle factors such as being busy. Without regular checkups a health issue can be overlooked until you develop a serious illness.

My Back Pain Masked a Serious Health Condition

I have a chronic degenerative spinal condition which is very common in nurses.  CT scans and bone scans show degeneration in the fascia joints in my spine.  When my back pain intensified, my doctor prescribed a cortisone injection under CT guidance.  This successfully treated the pain, so I had them regularly with improvement in my pain.

When I developed severe back pain on the opposite side of the degeneration my GP prescribed stronger pain killers.  I suffered for over two years, believing the pain was caused by degeneration. I did not really understanding why my pain was on the opposite side.  It wasn’t until I developed complications after surgery this year that it was found that I had hydronephrosis.  The back pain was actually caused by a blockage which caused the urine to reflux back into my kidney.  

This would have led to serious kidney problems if it hadn’t been detected as an incidental finding.  I’m a Registered Nurse and I hadn’t even suspected my back pain was kidney related.  This is one example of how serious health issues can be overlooked, especially if they can be tied in with existing, known health issues.

The Regular Health Checks You Should Be Having - infographic
The Regular Health Checks You Should Be Having

The health checks you can do yourself

You can do many health checks yourself.  If you find anything concerning, you can then see a doctor.  Get to know your own body by doing these regular health checks:

Skin – Regularly check your skin, taking note of any moles, freckles and skin blemishes.  A doctor, preferably at a specialised skin cancer clinic, should assess any changes.  The doctors at skin cancer clinics are experienced in assessing skin. They use specialised equipment designed to detect early skin changes. Early changes that might indicate skin cancer can be treated before they develop further.

Weight – check once per week.  It is a good idea to keep an eye on your waist circumference as well.  Any waist measurement over 88cm (35 inches) for women and 102cm (40 inches) for men may mean you are at high risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  See my article Why Your Waist Measurement Matters for more information.

Dental – Dentists should examine any lesions and bleeding that don’t resolve in a week.  Clean teeth at least daily and use floss as your oral health is vital for overall well-being.  Have a regular checkup and clean by a dentist at least yearly.

Mental and emotional health – seek medical help if you have symptoms of anxiety, intense sadness, fatigue, insomnia or changes in appetite that don’t resolve after a month or two.

In addition to the above, women need to do monthly breast self examinations.  See my article How to Perform a Breast Self Examination (and Why) for a complete guide.   Men need to perform a testicular self examination monthly from puberty onwards.  See your doctor if there is any unusual thickening or lumps.

The health checks your doctor will do

Have a regular check-up with your doctor every two years.  Be aware of your family health history as it may mean you need screening more often – see my article Know Your Personal and Family Health History for more information.  Your doctor should be able to tell you if you are at high risk for certain diseases.  Additional screening to the following may be recommended.

The recommended health checks for both men and women:

Skin checks:  Yearly

Heart health – blood pressure every two years from age 40, more often if you have a family history of high blood pressure, stroke or heart disease.  You should also have your blood tested to check for high cholesterol and triglycerides every 5 years from age 45, more often if high risk.  If you are high risk you may also have an ECG (electrocardiogram) or cardiac echo, which are both non-invasive checks.  A one-off test is offered at age 45-49 to screen for high risk of heart disease.

Bowel screening every two years from age 50. (A bowel screen kit will be sent to your home if you are an Australian resident)

Sexual health – yearly if sexually active.  See your doctor immediately if you have pain, discharge, lesions or if you have unprotected sex.

Eye tests for glaucoma and macular degeneration – every two years after age 40s if you have a family history.  From age 65 if you notice vision deterioration.

Bone density from the age of 45 (women) or 50 (men) if at risk for example, a family history of osteoporosis.

Diabetes – A fasting blood sugar test.  A one-off test is offered at age 45-49 to screen for high risk of type 2 diabetes.  Those at high risk of Type 2 Diabetes should be checked 1-3 yearly. 3 yearly for people not at risk, from the age of 40.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should start 3 yearly checks from age 18.  

Hearing Impairment – a hearing assessment yearly after age 65.

Kidney disease – every 1-2 years if at high risk.

Immunity – Flu shots (Influenza vaccinations) yearly after age 65.  If you are high risk or work in the health care industry you should also have Influenza and Hepatitis B vaccinations.

Health Checks for Women

In addition to the above health checks, women should have:

Cervical screening every 5 years from the time you are sexually active.  The cervical screening Test has replaced the Pap Smear. It should be started at age 25 or two years after your last Pap Smear.

Breast screening every 2 years from age 50-74.  If you are high risk you will be offered screening from a younger age and more frequently.  For example, I have been having yearly mammograms and ultrasounds plus MRIs every 2 years because of my high risk.  Some women have them more frequently than that, depending on your doctor’s preference.

Health Checks for Men

In addition to the above health checks, men should have:

Prostate – Annual prostate checks from age 50, earlier if you have a family history.  This involves a blood test (PSA), and may include a digital rectal examination.  See your doctor if you have trouble urinating, pain, blood in your urine, night-time urination frequently, or incontinence.

Women's Health Checks - The recommendations for Breast checks, and cervical screening.  Men's Health Checks - The recommendations for  Testicular and Prostate checks
Women’s and Men’s Health Checks

Be an Advocate for your own Health

You are the best advocate for your own health.  If you suspect you have a health issue, see your doctor.  If you are unhappy with the outcome, seek another opinion.  You know your own body.  Keep track of the symptoms, write them down, and identify any patterns.  If you are unsure of whether you should see a doctor, refer to my article Signs You Need to See a Doctor.  

Let your doctor know of any family history of disease.  Keep track of your personal and family health history – see this article for more information.  Most important, keep up with your health screening and the regular health checks you should be having.

Please note:  I am a Registered Nurse of 30 years but I am unable to give specific medical advice.  If you are concerned please see your GP.  Screening schedules may differ depending on where you live.  The schedule recommended here is for guidance only.  This post is for general informational and educational purposes only.  Please refer to the disclaimer.

Further reading: While researching this article, I found the most thorough information at the following websites:

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Know Your Family and Personal Health History

Know Your Family and Personal Medical History

This post is for general informational and educational purposes only. Please refer to the Disclaimer. It is recommended that you seek advice from your medical practitioner if you require specific medical advice.

Knowing Your Medical History is Essential

It is important to keep a track of your health history, especially your family’s history of diseases and other health issues. Your family’s medical history can reveal a pattern of certain diseases which may indicate whether there is a familial risk for developing a medical condition. Common diseases that can crop up in families are:

  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease – heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes
  • Kidney disorders
  • Diabetes and other endocrine diseases
  • Asthma
  • Genetic disorders such as haemophilia and Down syndrome
  • Some types of mental illness
  • Osteoporosis
  • Huntingtons disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Albinism

Some diseases are caused by mutations in a gene, while others are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors such as diet, exposure to toxins, skin damage by exposure to UV light, and substance abuse. Further information is available from Health Direct at this link.

It is important to know your family's health history because it may show an inherited disease.  This post includes a printable medical history form to record your personal and family health.
It is important to know your family’s health history because it may show an inherited disease. This post includes a printable medical history form to record your personal and family health.

My Own Family Medical History

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Sue Loncaric for her series Women Living Well Over 50. One of the subjects we discussed was the importance of knowing your family and personal medical history. I shared my own family history of cancer, and how it lead me to have genetic testing to diagnose me with BRCA2 gene mutation which puts me in a high risk for certain cancers.

My family also has a high risk of cardiovascular disease and I have a congenital heart defect which was inherited from my father. Knowing my risk meant that I could have increased surveillance and appropriate treatment at an earlier stage, before I developed cancer or cardiac issues.

Knowing your family history can guide your doctor to investigate and treat you for medical conditions in their early stages or even prevent them before they occur. For example, because I have BRCA2 I had my ovaries and breasts removed before I developed cancer. I also started on cholesterol reducing medications before I developed plaque which could have lead to blocked arteries (arteriosclerosis).

My family has a high risk for melanoma so I have taken my sons for yearly skin checks since they were young. My son developed a melanoma at 24, but it was diagnosed at stage 1 and he is now cured. This is due to the regular check-ups and knowing our family history. We both now have 6 monthly skin checks.

Knowing your family health history is important because it could highlight hereditary medical conditions or risk of disease. It can guide doctors to investigate symptoms further and even guide them towards choosing one form of treatment over another. Drawing up a family tree may help to pinpoint certain diseases in the family. Using my own family as an example, your family tree may look like this:

Example of a family tree showing important health history.  BRCA2 gene mutation has been passed down to two generations.  It has an increased risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancer and may also cause an increased risk of melanoma and other cancersMy Family Tree showing Our Health History

Keeping track of your personal health history is also important. I write everything down and update my records to keep a track of medications, allergies, illnesses and operations, vaccinations and the contact details of the medical practitioners who treat me.

The file is updated regularly and I carry a copy in my handbag in the event of a medical emergency. I cannot count the number of times I have had to refer to it. Keeping track of allergies, immunisations, medications and what procedures you have had done, is easy with this Personal and Medical Family History form.

Personal and Family Medical History

I have developed a useful printable personal and family medical history form that you may use. Print a separate copy for each member of the family and keep it somewhere safe. There is a printable version at the end of the post:

PERSONAL AND FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY 

Personal Medical Information

Name 


Date of Birth 

Place Born


Address



Next of Kin

Name


Contact No. Or Address


Medicare No.


Medical Insurance Policy: 

Provider:                        Card/Policy No.


Concessions


Social Security/DVA No.


Allergies 

MedicationReactionSeverity

Vaccinations

VaccinationDateVaccinationDate

Medical Conditions 

Medical ConditionDate Diagnosed

Surgical Procedures 

DateProcedureDoctorHospital

Medications

MedicationDoseFrequencyPurpose

Major Illnesses

IllnessDateDoctor

General Practitioner 

Name


Address


Phone


Medical Specialist

Name


Address


Phone


Surgical Specialist 

Name


Address


Phone


Medical Specialist 

Name


Address


Phone


Surgical Specialist 

Name


Address


Phone



Additional Notes









Family Medical History

Father 

Medical conditions 


If deceased – Age & Cause


Mother

Medical conditions 


If deceased – Age & cause


Children

Medical conditions 


If deceased  – Age & Cause


Brothers/Sisters

Medical Conditions 


If deceased – Age & Cause 


Grandparents

Paternal Grandfather – Medical Conditions 


If deceased  – Age & Cause


Paternal Grandmother – Medical Conditions 


If deceased  – Age & Cause 


Maternal Grandfather  – Medical Conditions 


If deceased  – Age & Cause 


Maternal Grandmother  – Medical Conditions 


If deceased  – Age & Cause 


Aunts/Uncles

Significant Medical Conditions


If deceased  – Age & Cause

Write significant hereditary medical conditions on this family tree

Printable Family and Personal Medical History Form

Download and print as many copies as you like. You will need one for each member of the family.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read:

Signs You Need to See a Doctor

Being a Patient in the Midst of a Pandemic

Beating BRCA2 – How it Has Affected my Life

Please share this article as it may help someone else.

2 thoughts on “Know Your Family and Personal Medical History”

  1. katey26 says: July 29, 2020 at 10:03 am Edit The form is a great idea Like Reply
    1. Christina Henry says: July 29, 2020 at 7:23 pm Edit Thankyou Katey. I’m glad you like it Liked by 1 person Reply
  2. Jo says: July 29, 2020 at 10:06 am Edit This is a fabulous resource Christine. Two of my grandparents were heavy smokers and died of lung cancer (paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother – at 94), my maternal grandfather passed from complications of a routine operation and my paternal grandmother died of old age (at 98). My mother (78) is as healthy and fit as a horse, but my father (82) has had prostate cancer, non TB lung disease and asthma. Number 6 in 8 kids he lost his eldest brother at 92, but all others are living. All of Mum’s siblings are still living. My husband, however, was adopted and we know nothing at all of his family history. You have definitely got me thinking. #MLSTL Liked by 1 person Reply
    1. Christina Henry says: July 29, 2020 at 7:28 pm Edit Hi Jo, somehow I think you will have a long life! It must be difficult for your husband at times, not knowing his family history. I had my DNA tested through Ancestry.com and found a new first cousin who was adopted. That’s one way your husband could find family if he ever wanted to know. Regards Christina Liked by 1 person Reply
      1. Jo says: July 31, 2020 at 7:56 am Edit Yes, we’ve done the DNA testing, but the closest matches we got were 3rd/4th cousins. We’ve also now got a birth certificate so the next step is to see if we can getthe records unlocked (Scotland). Liked by 1 person
      2. Christina Henry says: July 31, 2020 at 12:31 pm Edit Oh wow! Good luck with it. Liked by 1 person
  3. leannelc says: July 29, 2020 at 7:38 pm Edit Hi Christine – I take my family’s medical history for granted and keep forgetting about the diseases etc that took some of them early. My father died in his early 70’s but that was largely from poor lifestyle choices, however you’ve reminded me of the heart issues in my mother’s side of the family that I need to keep in mind as I get older. I’m grateful that overall we’re a pretty healthy bunch.
    #MLSTL Liked by you Reply
    1. midlifestylist says: July 30, 2020 at 2:45 pm Edit Hi Leanne, I unfortunately inherited some dodgy genes from my dad, so I envy you having a healthy family. Luckily all the creativity we inherited came from my parents so you take the good with the bad. Some people prefer to put their head in the sand with health issues but I think it’s better to keep family history in mind and get on to it quickly if anything worries you. Thank you for commenting, regards Christina Like Reply
  4. Debbie says: July 29, 2020 at 9:29 pm Edit Hi Christina, this is a wonderful resource and your reasons behind it are really informative. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. We are looking at issues with my grandson and family backgrounds are proving required information. Very timely to read your post #mlstl Liked by you Reply
    1. midlifestylist says: July 30, 2020 at 2:47 pm Edit Hi Debbie, I’m so glad you found it useful. I really hope it helps with your grandson. Thank you so much for your feedback, regards Christina Liked by 1 person Reply
  5. Helen says: July 30, 2020 at 12:34 am Edit This is so important! I come from a family that does not talk about family illnesses and It too a long time to draw the information out! It also helped remove some of the shame I was feeling when I realized that some of my medical conditions were not my fault, but actually due to family history. Like Reply
    1. midlifestylist says: July 30, 2020 at 2:38 pm Edit Hi Helen, yes I agree. The time for sweeping things under a rug is long gone. I still have family who choose to put their head in the sand where it comes to their health and I definitely disagree with that approach. It’s better to avoid illnesses or treat them in the early stages. Thank you so much for commenting, regards Christina Like Reply
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Women of Courage Guest Post

Some time ago I was asked by Denyse Whelan to write a guest post for her Women of Courage series. I’ve been following her series every week and have been inspired by all the other guests so it was an honour to be included. Denyse is someone I admire because she has had her own battles with cancer. I look after people going through this type of cancer after they have surgery and it’s a huge deal – head and neck cancer is incredibly challenging but Denyse survived this and has gone on to write very inspirational blogs about this and many other subjects.

Since I wrote this guest post, I have had four surgeries – two planned and two unplanned. I had the surgeries with the intention of removing the organs that were targets for cancer – my ovaries and breasts. I have BRCA2 gene mutation which gives me a very high chance of breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancer, and melanoma. Previous posts were written about it here, and about my surgeries here.

The link to my guest post on Denyse’s blog is here. Please read it and some of Denyse’s other blogs. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this guest post for the Women of Courage Series.

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We Went PINK for Breast Cancer Research

As an update to my last blog, I am raising money for breast cancer research by taking part in the GO PINK campaign for the National Breast Cancer Foundation of Australia. GO PINK encourages people to dye or shave their hair, wear pink or hold events in order to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation

“National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) is Australia’s leading national body funding game-changing breast cancer research with money raised entirely by the Australian public. We receive no government funding. What we do, would not be possible without the support and generosity of people and organisations like YOU. Our mission is simple: stop deaths from breast cancer. How? By identifying, funding and championing world-class research – research that will help us detect tumours earlier, improve treatment outcomes, and ultimately – save lives. Since NBCF’s inception in 1994, the five-year survival rates for breast cancer has increased from 76% to 91%. It’s proof our strategy is working. More than ever, NBCF is focusing keenly on how we can do more with less in order to achieve great outcomes that will impact the longevity and quality of life for patients with breast cancer.  For us, this means identifying new and effective models of funding and ensuring that we don’t stand alone but work collaboratively and creatively to achieve our mission of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.” Source: https://fundraise.nbcf.org.au/event/go-pink/why-we-need-you

Our team, The Tough Titties

My niece Ally, her friend Coralee, and I are the Tough Titties! Our dye day was on Friday. We went live on Instagram, so that our followers could watch us dye our hair pink. During the live feed we explained why raising money for breast cancer research is so important to us. We have raised $754 so far – our aim is $1000. If you would like to donate, here is a link to our fundraising page:

https://fundraise.nbcf.org.au/fundraisers/thetoughtitties

As promised, I am posting photos of our big day!

Breast Cancer Research

I have written about why I am raising money for breast cancer research in this blog post. I am passionate about raising money for research into breast and other cancers, particularly cancers that have a genetic link. Unfortunately I have the BRCA2 gene mutation that increases my risk of breast cancer to 60-80% and ovarian cancer to 20-40%, as well as other cancers as I have outlined previously. Both my parents died of cancer and my son, brother and sister have all had a melanoma. Ally’s grandmother also passed away from cancer before she was born, and her other grandmother (my mother-in-law) is suffering from lung cancer. In our family alone, cancer has had a huge impact.

Update on my Bilateral Prophylactic Mastectomies

I am recovering at home after my bilateral prophylactic mastectomies that I had done on 13 May 2020. (Read about it in this post). Recovery hasn’t been as straightforward as I would have liked due to complications after my surgery. My wound is healing slowly and I still have a lot of swelling and bruising. I’m seeing a haematologist now, to try to uncover why I had a large post-operative bleed. Even with all the complications I have had and how much this has impacted my life, I do not regret having surgery to remove my ovaries and breasts. With my high risk of cancer, I could be going through these surgeries with cancer which would have been so much worse.

Doing something positive like raising money for breast cancer research has given me something to do other than feel sorry for myself. I’m not saying I haven’t had days where I’ve been very emotional. I’ve had some days where I’ve been very upset. But having something to focus on has been really positive and helped me to focus on something during this time. I’ve also had some really great support in the way of lovely messages and kind words. That’s the sort of impetus I need to get me through.

Having our dye day was so much fun, especially with Banjo as our mascot. Here is a collage of photos from our photo shoot with him, which was hilarious!

We went pink for the GO PINK campaign to raise money for breast cancer research
Banjo our mascot – photo shoot for the GO PINK campaign.
GO PINK raises funds for breast cancer research. It is organised by the National Breast Cancer Foundation
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I will GO PINK for Cancer Research

GO PINK for Cancer Research

I do some strange things while scrolling through my phone at night. My insomnia keeps me awake for hours sometimes with only my screen for company. I wake up the next day with buyer’s remorse, usually because I’ve bought shoes or clothes that never fit me, or an appliance that never gets used. But this time I woke up with a sinking feeling in my gut because I had signed up to GO PINK, and agreed to dye my hair pink for breast cancer research.

I’m pretty conservative and have never dyed my hair any shade that could be considered flamboyant or radical. As an introvert I hate to stand out in a crowd. The thought of it makes me blush so I’ll probably end up looking like a flamingo with cheeks to match my hair. I needed some courage and that came in the form of my beautiful niece Ally who LOVES to stand out in a crowd and possesses such a lively spirit that she’ll boost my confidence when I need it the most. Ally has been a wonderful support to me over the last few months. She was the person I turned to when I knew I was having my mastectomies because she’s been through breast surgeries herself. Having someone to talk to who has been through this has been a blessing.

My Niece Ally and I.  We will be fundraising together for the GO PINK for cancer research event.  Ally has been a wonderful support for me
My niece Ally and I. We will be fundraising together for the GO PINK for cancer research event. She’s been a wonderful support to me over the last few months

Why Breast Cancer Research is Important to Me

I’m doing this challenge because it’s to fundraise for a cause that is very special to me. I have written about my genetic disorder BRCA2 which increases my risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers and melanoma. I inherited it from dad who died from prostate and pancreatic cancer (both caused by BRCA2). I’m at home recovering from bilateral prophylactic mastectomies. It is a risk reducing surgery along with the removal of my ovaries which I had done in March.

The very fact that I could have risk reducing surgeries is entirely due to the discovery of BRCA2 in the mid 1990’s. Before that, entire families were devastated by breast and ovarian cancer striking again and again through multiple generations. It’s now commonplace for family members to be tested for genetic conditions when there appears to be a genetic link. Discovering this gene mutation in 1995 was a game-changer for breast cancer research.  It allowed people like me to discover their inherited risk for cancer and do something about it.  Increased screening, prophylactic surgery and medications to reduce the risk are all possible now thanks to breast cancer research.

My Family History of Cancer and BRCA2 Gene Mutation

In my case there were few cases of breast cancer in my family. That alone prevented me from being tested ten years ago. It’s not as well known that men can have the genetic mutation too. Prostate cancer and melanoma have cropped up in our family through multiple generations, including my 24 year old son who had a melanoma. My cousin was diagnosed with BRCA2 about 10 years ago. Because of that I could be tested for free. The cost used to be extremely high. Improved testing methods mean that more people can now be tested under Medicare. My sons and any other close relatives are also eligible for free testing.

I am passionate about research into genetic causes for cancer and other diseases. I signed up to the GO PINK campaign because it raises funds for breast cancer research by the National Breast Cancer Foundation. If dying my hair pink raises awareness and funds, then I’ll do it. Even though I’m feeling anxious about looking weird with pink hair! The big day is this Friday. If you would like to donate to this cause via our team The Tough Titties the link is below. (The name is Ally’s idea, because people who have cancer have to be tough).

https://fundraise.nbcf.org.au/fundraisers/thetoughtitties

https://fundraise.nbcf.org.au/fundraisers/thetoughtitties

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Beating BRCA2 – How it has Affected My Life

I have had my own challenges while the World’s focus has been on the Coronavirus. This is a personal account of how the BRCA2 gene mutation has affected my life.

While the World Has Been Focused on the Coronavirus, I’ve Been Beating Cancer

The World around us changed dramatically between my birthday and my best friend’s birthday three days later. We spent the weekend together with our husbands, the four of us celebrating by staying in a resort and drinking, eating and laughing together. After we went home the restrictions started suddenly so that it would no longer be possible to socialise in that way. Our last weekend together from 20-22 March is the last time we could eat out at a restaurant or cafe, drink in a hotel or even spend time together. It seems like the distant past now.

We still can’t eat out at restaurants together, although restrictions in our State have begun to be lifted. We are unable to cross the border to visit my family who live just an hour south. Social isolation has added another layer to my own health battles that began to unfold this year.

BRCA2 Gene Mutation and Cancer Risk

I was diagnosed with the BRCA2 gene mutation in March. You may have heard about Angelina Jolie having BRCA1 and undergoing bilateral prophylactic mastectomies and a total abdominal hysterectomy a number of years ago. BRCA2 is similar – it increases my risk for breast and ovarian cancer dramatically. It’s a case of not if I develop these cancers, but when.

I knew there was a chance of inheriting this gene about 10 years ago when I nursed my cousin who told me she has the gene. I had genetic counseling back then but it was not very obvious that the gene was on my side of the family as there wasn’t a high number of family members with cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer. The genetic counselor thought my cousin probably inherited it from her father (no blood relation to me). Consequently, I didn’t get tested and opted for more stringent screening instead.

I’m a huge advocate for screening. I have been having early mammograms and ultrasounds for the last 10 years. Every six months I get my skin checked. My son’s melanoma was picked up during a routine skin test. This was possible because I starting taking my sons for skin checks from a very young age. My son’s melanoma was diagnosed when it was just a stage 1 cancer. Many people ignore things until they’re advanced but that’s not me. I get every little bump checked out because I’ve seen too many invasive cancers as a nurse.

My son's melanoma.  He was only 24 years old when it was diagnosed.  It was a stage 1 melanoma.  Surgery completely cured him
My Son’s Melanoma – He was Only 24 Years Old when it was diagnosed.
It was a stage 1 melanoma. Surgery completely cured him

The last few years have produced more cases of cancer in our family – my son, brother and sister have all had melanoma and my father had prostate and pancreatic cancer. It was always in the back of my mind that I should probably get tested for BRCA2. I went back to the genetic counselor to be tested. Results showed I did have the BRCA2 gene mutation. I inherited it from dad – I had a 50% chance of having it and my sons then had a 50% chance of inheriting it from me. My first reaction was not for myself, but rather for my sons – “I’ve given them a death sentence”.

BRCA2 Affects Males Too

Telling them was difficult. It would have implications for when they want to start a family, and it might even be a deal-breaker for some women who wouldn’t want to have the risk of having children with a genetic disorder. They surprised me with their reaction, however. Their response was that they’d rather know if they had the gene or not. They were now aware of screening and get any changes in their bodies checked out early. They underwent genetic counseling and were tested for the BRCA2 gene mutation. The results came back negative. We were surprised and ecstatic at the results. Even my son who had a melanoma was clear which is even more surprising).

Risk Reducing Surgery

My first response to finding out I have BRCA2 was to swiftly decide to have prophylactic risk-reducing surgeries. That involves removing the organs most at risk of developing cancer – ovaries (I have a 20-40% chance of getting ovarian cancer) and breasts (60-80% chance). Having nursed women with ovarian and breast cancer for most of my nursing career, I know how devastating those cancers are and I want to avoid them as much as possible.

I had the first surgery on March 30th – a laparoscopic bilateral oophrectomy (keyhole surgery to remove my ovaries). This surgery is low-risk and most people bounce back quickly, with very little complications. Then there’s me. I seem to have the worst luck when it comes to complications to procedures – I went into complete heart block after an angiogram and required CPR. One medication landed me in hospital from a severe allergy. So to have complications after this small operation, while not surprising for me, was a shock to the system all the same.

Complications

I bruised. My abdomen became extremely distended. A lot of pain and nausea. But the worst thing – I couldn’t pass urine. I ended up going home with an indwelling catheter and it unearthed a problem with my bladder that’s probably been there for a long time but wasn’t apparent until I had pelvic surgery. I had follow-up surgery to fix it last week. While there was an improvement, there will be ongoing issues for a long time because my kidney and bladder have been damaged. All my back pain was from my kidney, not my spine after all.

BRCA2 Gene Mutation.  While the world has been focused on the Coronovirus pandemic, I have been battling my own health dramas

My next challenge is Bilateral Prophylactic Mastectomies

This week I will undergo my biggest challenge yet – a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. After my previous operations I’m scared of having this surgery. I’m more scared of breast cancer though. Someone said to me that I’m brave to do this – I don’t feel brave. In fact I feel just the opposite. The women who have breast cancer are brave. Imagine going through this operation as well as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and medications for life. That’s brave to me.

I feel like I’m cheating cancer by doing these surgeries, but there’s still the risk of getting a different type of cancer because of this gene mutation. BRCA2 causes pancreatic, prostate and renal cancer as well as melanoma so I’ll still have to remain vigilant. Of course I can’t get prostate cancer, but pancreatic cancer is hard to detect. My dad’s was too far advanced to have any treatment. Pancreatic cancer ravaged his body. He only lasted for 7 months after it was diagnosed. Poor bugger, it was a horrible way to die.

How the Coronavirus Has Impacted Me

Attention has been on my own health issues while the world has been focused on coronavirus. I have found it hard to cope at times because it has restricted my ability to interact with the people who are my confidantes and support system. Talking on the phone is not the same. Even when I was in hospital I could only nominate one visitor for the whole hospital stay. My husband was sent away from the hospital and could only visit for 2 hours once a day. Going through mastectomies will be daunting without him there for my support. The thought of it upsets me a great deal. I won’t be able to have my sons and best friend visit at all.

Elective surgeries were cancelled in March. I feel really lucky that I knew the surgeons personally and my first operation was pulled forward. Any later it would have been impossible. I feel a little guilty that I could get this preferential treatment but there has to be some perks for nursing alongside these doctors for the last 20-30 years.

Other Concerns

Having to tell my brothers and nephews over the phone and Messenger that they too have a 50% chance of inheriting this really sucks. Social distancing sucks when you have to have these very full-on conversations. Worrying that I may get the coronavirus affects my health too, because I have co-morbidities that would mean I’d be one of the cases most likely to end up really sick from it. It’s been a very stressful time, and I’ll be glad when this is all over and we’re out the other side. The world will be a changed place when this pandemic is over.

Beating BRCA2.  While the world has focused on the Coronavirus, I have been beating cancer.  BRCA2 gene mutation increases my risk of breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancer.

Note to my followers: I’ll be out of action for a while due to my surgery this week. I may be able to post short updates via my mobile phone but my usual blog posts will be on hold for a few weeks. Thank you all for your support, I really appreciate it.

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Mixed Feelings on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day has always been a day of mixed feelings for me. My mum passed away from cancer when I was 24. She was 54, the exact age I am now. A lifetime without my mum has been hard to bear at times, especially those times when your mum would be present for you, like the birth of your children.

Mum and I, about 6 months before she died of cancer. We didn’t know she had cancer until 2 months before she died

When I became a mother, it was a time of immense joy tinged with grief. My mum had only passed away 18 months before so I was still grieving. I had post-natal depression after my first baby, and really struggled with motherhood. My baby had colic and screamed a lot, his poor tummy visibly rippling with the pain of bowel spasms. My mum would have been there quietly supporting me and giving me advice gently. Her firstborn had also suffered colic so her advice would have helped me so much.

You never get over losing your mum. 30 years later, I still miss her and wish she was still here. She was the best role model for motherhood I could have had. She guided her family with a soft hand, never raised her voice or hand, yet instilled respect and compliance from us.

Before she passed away I spent a few days sitting by her hospital bed. That time with her I hold dear because she talked about mitherhood and advised me on how to bring up my children using the same gentle approach as she. I have never forgotten the advice she gave me and used it as a basis for my own approach to bringing up my children.

Being a mother has been one of my life’s joys. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a mother. I had trouble getting pregnant and my pregnancies weren’t easy, but it was all worth it. That intense love you feel when you hold your baby for the first time is like no other.

I have always felt very emotional on Mother’s Day. Some years I’ve been really sad because it’s a reminder that I can’t give my mum cards, presents and a warm embrace. A few years ago I decided to do something to honour my mum’s memory so I joined in the Mother’s Day Classic which is held in memory of loved ones and raises money for breast cancer research. By doing that I changed an emotional sad day into something positive.

My husband Phil, our dog Banjo and I walked 6km for the Mother’s Day Classic which raises money for breast cancer research

In honour of mum my husband and I are walking 5km today. It’s a virtual walk because of social distancing laws, which means we can’t join with other participants but the online community is very supportive of each other.

If you would like to donate the link to my fundraising page is below (click on the picture). All money raised goes to breast cancer research.

To all the mothers, Happy Mother’s Day.

https://fundraise.mothersdayclassic.com.au/fundraisers/christinahenry/mothers-day-classic-2020

Click here to go to my fundraising page. Thank you!

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Signs you need to see a doctor

When should you see a doctor? What signs to look for

Signs and symptoms that need to be checked by a doctor

Updated 14 August 2020

People are delaying seeking a doctor’s advice because of the pandemic. A delay in the diagnosis and treatment of disease leads to poorer outcomes in some instances, especially cancer. There are some signs and symptoms that should not be ignored, and need to be checked by a doctor.

I’ve been a Registered Nurse for over 30 years and unfortunately many of the patients I see have a “head in the sand” approach to health. They are aware of signs and symptoms, but they’re too scared to go to the doctor so they leave it too late. Many of the diseases we see can be cured if they’re diagnosed and treated early enough, but because the person is too scared to see a doctor, it is too late to do anything about it. Unfortunately we also see patients who have been fobbed off or treated for the wrong thing as well. If you’re not happy with what you’re told by one doctor, seek another opinion. You are the best advocate for your own health so keep in tune with your body and don’t ignore signs that there’s something wrong.

What predisposes us to disease?

A doctor I worked with once said to me “if everyone gave up smoking I’d be out of a job”. That’s not strictly true, however, because even though the smoking rate has gone down since awareness campaigns and Government restrictions on the sale of cigarettes, there are still other risk factors that can predispose us to disease. These include hereditary factors, lifestyle, age and sex, environmental factors and socioeconomic status. We can’t do much about our hereditary factors, age or sex, but we can control our lifestyle, environment and socioeconomic status to a certain degree.

Don’t ignore these symptoms

Another thing we can control is our awareness of signs and symptoms that could warrant a trip to the doctor, such as:

  • changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • shortness of breath, wheeziness
  • a cough that produces yellow or green sputum, or is blood tinged
  • chest tightness or pain
  • spots that have changed on your skin
  • lumps and bumps
  • bleeding, e.g in your urine or faeces, or a wound
  • hoarse voice or difficulty swallowing
  • dizziness or fainting
  • pain not controlled with over the counter medications
  • weakness in a limb, especially when it’s down one side of your body and you also have a drooping mouth
  • very high fevers, 38 degrees C or above
  • discharge or oozing, especially when it has a strong odour
  • swelling
  • a cut or sore that won’t heal
  • severe thirst but still have a dry mouth
  • unexpected weight loss and loss of appetite over a period of time
  • snoring and breath holding at night, and still feeling exhausted during the day
  • changes in your vision, crustiness in your eyes, or red and painful eyes
  • yellowing of skin and eyes
  • palpitations or fluttering in your chest
  • fractures or sprains
  • severe vomiting
  • confusion or mood changes
  • reactions to medications or treatment
  • Knocks to the head, especially ones where you lose conciousness or see stars, or are confused afterwards
  • epileptic fits

This list is only a sample of things to watch out for. Some of these are medical emergencies – don’t hesitate to call an ambulance if you have chest pain, weakness down one side of the body, severe bleeding and serious accidents. If you have a pre-existing medical condition, make sure you are informed of what signs and symptoms to look for, and when to see your doctor for follow-up appointments.

Misdiagnosis can lead to poor health outcomes

I have worked in Plastics and Reconstructive surgery wards for many years and even then I have a personal example of misdiagnosis with skin cancer. Because I am aware of the risks of skin cancer I have had a yearly skin check for at least the last 20 years. My sons have had the same checks since they were small children. This is partly due to the high incidence of melanoma in my family (my brother and sister) but also because of seeing the effects of melanoma spread in patients.

I was on holiday in New Zealand and my son phoned me to say he’d had his skin check and the doctor had biopsied a spot on the back of his hand and it had come back as melanoma. It’s hard to convey how devastated I was at hearing this and not being at home to support him. He was only 24 at the time and we’d been going to the same skin doctor for years. This doctor had told him at least twice before that the spot was fine, and we had trusted him. This time it was a different doctor – we had recently moved to a new surgery.

Melanoma, stage 1, on my 24 year old son's hand.  Required excision and flap graft.
My son’s melanoma

If my son had left it for another year it would have spread. We were lucky it was Grade 1 and hadn’t spread at all. I phoned one of the Plastic Surgeons I worked with and made an urgent appointment and my son was in surgery the following week. He had to have a full thickness flap done, about 3cm in diameter, to his hand but he’s cancer free which is the best outcome we could have had. He’s proud to show his scar because he’s a survivor and he’s brought awareness to many of his friends and acquaintances about the need for skin checks. We both have to have 6 monthly skin checks now for the rest of our lives.

This is the scar on his hand now. He had a skin flap removed from his upper arm to graft on to his hand

Be Your Own Health Advocate

My message today is that I want you to see a doctor if you’re concerned about anything, but keep pushing for more if you’re not happy with what they tell you. That niggling feeling that something isn’t right should not be ignored so pay attention to your body!

Note: this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be substituted for professional advice from a Registered Medical Practitioner. Please see the full disclaimer statement by clicking on the heading Disclaimer on the Home page. I am unable to answer specific questions from readers – if you are concerned, please see your doctor.

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