Important health checks for men over 50 (Australian man's personal experience!)
Like cleaning the gutters and giving the dog his eye drops, a visit to the doctor can be a chore many men – me included - would rather avoid.
But, just like an annual car service can pick up small issues with your motor before it breaks down, regular health screenings and tests are the best way to detect serious health issues early on, get any treatment you need quickly, and continue living a healthy, happy life.
Like it or not, cancer is something that many men will face as they age. Almost 40% of men will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their life.1 Sadly, advancing age is a risk factor for many cancers, which is why it’s so important to stay vigilant to any changes in how we feel, and access the available tests and screenings.
So, for a bunch of blokes who would rather unblock the drains than step inside a medical centre, what are the tests we need to make the effort to have, and why?
Bowel cancer screening
OK men, let’s start at the bottom (pun intended).
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is more common in people over the age of 50,2 and slightly more common in men, so it’s important to be aware of risks that could indicate early signs after we hit that milestone.
Changes in bowel movements (and what they produce – gross but true) can indicate an issue. If you notice anything different (colour, consistency, blood or mucous), the first step is talking to your GP who may refer you to a specialist doctor or clinic for some tests.
While the word test can make a lot of us want to run in the opposite direction, it’s worth knowing that if caught early enough, bowel cancer can often be managed, with one study showing that screening can reduce deaths by between 15% and 25%.3 However, a specialist can’t screen you unless you actually go for a test, so buckle up (or unbuckle), and take charge.
Depending on your symptoms, the tests your specialist recommends will differ. Blood tests, faecal samples, and scans might be the first step.
A colonoscopy is also a common test for bowel issues, and the most comprehensive test for colorectal cancer. While the thought of having a (very small) camera inserted into your butt to identify any suspicious tissues might strike fear into the heart of even the toughest bloke, there’s nothing to be uncomfortable, embarrassed, or concerned about. During the procedure, which generally takes about 30 minutes, you’ll be blissfully sedated and wake up with your dignity intact.
While prevention is better than cure, sometimes that’s not always possible. However, you can take a more active role in early detection of conditions like bowel cancer. If you have risk factors – including a family history of bowel cancer – and want to have regular tests, depending on where you live, your private, public, and government health bodies may offer regular screening programs.
In Australia, if you’re aged between 50 and 74, the government will send you a free testing kit in the mail under the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
Prostate health tests
Next up, the one we all avoid and let’s be honest, dread!
Yes, we’re talking prostates and THAT test. But before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk facts.
Prostate cancer is now the most common men's cancer in Australia. This year, it is estimated that a male has a 1 in 6 (or 17%) risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer by the age of 855 meaning it’s more important than ever to understand the rationale and protocol for prostate cancer testing.
– almost 60% of prostate cancer diagnoses occur in men over the age of 65 years and risk factors start to climb from the age of 50.6
Prostate cancer is can often be asymptomatic and in most cases is picked up only because of screening. However, if there are symptoms, this can include:
- Frequent or the sudden need to urinate
- Blood in semen or urine
- Discomfort or pain when urinating
- Pain in the lower back, thighs, or hips
It’s important that you see your doctor as soon as you can if you notice any of these symptoms or are concerned. As with most cancers, early detection is important for survival and long-term quality-of-life outcomes.
When it comes to testing for prostate cancer, you’ll be pleased to know the first step only involves rolling up your sleeve. A blood test called a PSA (prostate specific antigens) will determine if there are elevated levels of a protein that can indicate prostate cancer. If there are, your doctor or will likely recommend a digital rectal exam.
If you’ve never had the “pleasure” of a digital (i.e. finger) rectal (i.e. butt) examination, then chances are you’ve overestimated how awful it will be. Honestly, it’s not as bad as you think, but knowledge is power and it’s worth knowing what you’re walking into so there are no surprises.
Here’s what you can expect:
- Your doctor will ask you to slide your pants down and lay on one side on the examination table. They will usually leave the room or draw a curtain around the table while you do this, so you have plenty of privacy.
- Your doctor will put on a rubber glove and, using lubricant, will insert one finger into the rectum to feel for any abnormalities in your prostate.
- The whole process will last 10-20 seconds at most you get to talk about footy/cricket/weather the whole time to make up for the awkwardness.
Depending on what your doctor finds, they may recommend further tests, such as an MRI or biopsy.
Is it going to be fun? No.
Is it going to be a bit awkward? Hell, yes.
Could it literally add years or even save your life? Ab-so-bloody-lutely!
Depending on what your doctor finds they may conduct further tests, such as an MRI or biopsy.
While you’re in the zone – so to speak – it’s also worth talking about enlarged prostates, as going to the loo 17 times a night isn’t simply part of getting on a bit. The cause of prostate enlargement is unknown, but it's believed to be linked to hormonal changes as a man gets older. The good news is there are solutions that include lifestyle changes such as cutting down on booze and caffeine, medication such as alpha-blockers, and surgery. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
So is it a mole or is it skin cancer? Regular skin checks are an easy one for you.
Become familiar with your skin, it’s important you know what’s normal for you – that way you’ll know if anything changes. Skin cancers rarely hurt and are much more often seen rather than felt.
Here’s a quick how-to:
- Make sure you check your entire body, skin cancers can sometimes occur on parts of the body that are not exposed to the sun, i.e. soles of the feet, between fingers and toes and under nails
- Undress completely and make sure you have good light
- Use a mirror to check hard to see spots, like your back and scalp, or get a family member, partner, or friend to check for you
In addition to this, it’s advisable to get an expert (dermatologist, GP) to check you at least once every 2 years, or more frequently if you’re more at risk. Speak to your GP about your skin type and family history.
While some recommended health checks are going to be a walk in the park, others are more involved and could require you to take a few deep breaths.
However, investing time and attention into your health is never going to be a bad move. Just like that classic car in the garage, you want to keep your engine running well for a long time, so make the time for a tune-up today.
- National cancer Institute. Global Cancer Statistics. Available at: www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics. Accessed on: 18/07/22.
- Siegel R, et al. Cancer J Clin 2020; 70(3):145-164.
- Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. About the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. Available at: www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/national-bowel-cancer-screening-program/about-the-national-bowel-cancer-screening-program#bowel-screening-can-save-lives. Accessed on: 18/07/22.
- Rawla P. World J Oncol 2019; 10(2):63-89.
- canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/prostate-cancer/statistics. Accessed on: 29/08/22.
- Prostate Cancer UK. Am I at risk of prostate cancer? Available at: prostatecanceruk.org/prostate-information/are-you-at-risk. Accessed on: 18/07/22.