Have you been ignoring smear test letters? When was the last time you checked your boobs for lumps? Self care isn't all about bubble baths and natural face masks, it might just be time for a little health M.O.T...
There’s no denying it’s been a year like no other. Our healthcare system was totally disrupted – appointments and operations were cancelled, hospitals became no-go zones, and every other illness took a back seat as we battened down the hatches against Covid-19. “Cancer referral rates were low and many women with red-flag symptoms may have had a delayed referral to a specialist clinic,” says Mr Narendra Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology. While this is worrying, there’s good news. The message from the NHS is that it’s very much back in business.“During lockdown, many women also suffered from a delay in starting their treatments but, fortunately, things are now getting back to normal,” says Narendra.
So, have you let things slip a bit? We can all be guilty of this from time to time – there’s definitely no judgement from this camp. But, as we cautiously step into summer and the lifting of lockdown, there’s no better time to prioritise your own health. The future’s bright, and now’s the time to ramp up that self-care and kick-start your summer health M.O.T – your body will thank you for it.
Check your boobs
Image credit: London Clinic
Breast screening doesn’t kick in in the UK until you’re 50, but you’re never too young to keep an eye on your boobs. This is especially true for black women – black women in Britain develop breast cancer up to 21 years earlier than their white counterparts – but the screening process has a white bias (for example, mammograms aren’t recommended before the age of 50, but a study found screenings should begin at age 47 for black and Asian women).
The NHS advises to know what’s normal for you. Once a month, look at your breasts and feel them, all over, including your armpits and up to your collarbones. You’re looking for any changes in the appearance or feel of breast tissue – lumps, thickening, bleeding or discharge from a nipple, puckering or dimpling, a change in nipple position, or a moist, red area on your nipple that doesn't heal easily.
Spotted something unusual? There are lots of reasons why changes in your boobs can happen, and many are totally natural. Don’t panic, simply book a telephone appointment with your doctor to get your concerns off your chest.
Get your smear
You know the drill: from the age of 25, you should have a smear test every three years. But, if you’ve let this slide, don’t worry. Perhaps you’ve missed your appointment due to circumstances outside of your control, or maybe other things have taken priority – that’s understandable. “During the pandemic, the cervical screening programme was suspended and smear tests were delayed for a lot of women,” admits Mr Narendra Pisal. “But this five-minute test saves around 5,000 lives a year.
“Smear tests look out for abnormal cells well before they become cancerous. By treating any abnormality, the risk of developing cervical cancer is reduced significantly.” If you’ve not had yours within the last three years (or five years if you’re aged 50-64), pick up the phone to your GP and make an appointment. They won’t judge you for delaying; trust us – they’ll just be glad you’re there.
Worried about your first smear? Your nurse will have performed the procedure hundreds of times, so share your fears with them. They’ll be able to reassure you that it won’t hurt, and will undoubtedly put you at ease.
Check your moles
Lots of us have moles, but just how familiar are you with the pigment patterns on your skin? As part of your self-care routine, get to know the look and feel of your moles. “The vast majority of them are benign, but some have the potential to turn into skin cancer,” says Dr Adam Friedmann, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Clinics.
“The key thing you’re looking for is change. When checking your body for moles, you’re looking for any changes to the size, colour or shape. You’re also looking for itching, bleeding or crusting, which are signs you need to book an appointment to get your moles checked by a professional.” Got a niggling worry about a freckle? Speak to your GP to put your mind at rest.
The gender gap
Never, ever think that you’re wasting your doctor’s time. You may have a million and one things to do, a schedule longer than your arm and a hundred places to be, but putting your own health first is the ultimate form of self care. Want an appointment quickly, and at a time that suits you? Check out some of the online options which have popped up over the last few years – such as babylonhealth.com, thegpservice.co.uk, and pushdoctor.co.uk – which, for a fee, allow you to have a video appointment with a doctor the same day, maximising convenience for those of us who feel they just don’t have time to see the doc!
And finally, as unfair as it is, we have to face the facts – us women have to fight harder to be heard in the medical world than our male counterparts. Why? There are lots of reasons; suffice to say, in 2017, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – basically the NHS’s boss – decided it was necessary to tell doctors that they must ‘listen to women’ who were suffering symptoms of endometriosis. It takes someone with a womb an average of seven and a half years to get a diagnosis for this painful, debilitating condition. Women just aren’t taken as seriously in the medical world, so make sure you push for your concerns to be treated as valid.
What better time than now to prioritise your body and give it that all-important health M.O.T? After all, a little peace of mind about our health might be just the antidote we need to the stress of the past year.