Preventative healthcare – not just for old people

For most of my 28 years, bad health has been something that’s happened to other people. If I was going to get sick, surely it was going to be something catastrophic and beyond my control, like cancer or an accident or a brain tumour, something truly awful. I hadn’t heard of preventative healthcare and I’m not sure if I would have been interested. I was young and invincible (well, not actually invincible – science hasn’t quite figured that one out yet), supple and tanned (that may be an exaggeration). I could bounce back from a hangover, I could stay up late and eat awful food and smoke cigarettes, and stay up all night writing assignments, and even catch public transport with nary a thought about all the bacteria I was inhaling, and I could do all of these things for weeks on end.

Days of ignorant bliss, my friends.

Preventative healthcare is defined as “comprehensive care emphasising priorities for the prevention, early detection and early treatment of conditions. Do you know where I found that definition? At www.seniors.gov.au. This isn’t very surprising; preventative healthcare messages are mostly aimed at people over the age of 50. There are ads for bowel screening, breast cancer checks, flu vaccinations, stroke prevention, cholesterol check-ups, prostate cancer check-ups etc. Of course, all women are advised to get pap smears every couple of years to check for cervical cancer and we are all advised to slip, slop, slap to prevent skin cancer. On the other hand (or body part), STDs are on the rise again. We got a bit too comfortable after the success of earlier campaigns and we started to feel safe… safe enough to have un-safe sex.

You’ve probably heard this before and let it quietly slip in one ear and out the other, but we shouldn’t just think about our health once we have the symptoms.

‘Oh great, I’ve got gonorrhoea – thank goodness medicine can fix it up! In the meantime I’m just going to have to deal with this burning sensation and try and mop up that green discharge coming out of my (insert orifice here) and hope I don’t end up with an internal abscess that makes me infertile’ – you get the picture.

Looking after our health is something that should be a part of our day to day lives, throughout our whole life. Public policy might help educate us, guide us and in some cases, actually force us to do the right thing, but it’s about taking responsibility for the upkeep of our own bodies and minds.

Now I don’t want to stand up here on my pedestal wagging my finger at you and tut-tutting about the last time you visited the dentist, so I’m going to make an example of myself to try and teach you not to make the same mistakes I’ve made and to make sure you listen to your body if it is telling you something is out of whack.

Here is a list of the most major health issues I’ve had from the age of 21 till now and how I have very poorly dealt with these preventable problems.

Whooping Cough

I caught this at Adelaide Uni in about 2006 (it was going around), I put up with the symptoms for almost two months before I saw the doctor. In that time I passed it on to my grandfather who also got sick. Whooping cough is really contagious and I am an irresponsible idiot for not getting a bulk-billed check-up earlier on.

Severe B12 Deficiency

In 2007, I thought I was going crazy; one minute I was happy, over-the top, excited, the next I was a blubbering mess who could barely get off the floor. My memory was terrible, my head felt foggy and I was tired all the time. It was months and months before I saw a doctor and then a simple blood test showed that my B12 levels were severely depleted. After a course of B12 injections, I felt like a functioning human being again and was amazed at how big a role diet played in regards to mental health and at how silly I’d been for not seeing the doctor earlier.

Permanent Hearing Loss

In 2009, after 13 years of playing in bands, I got a hearing check-up. Turns out I had permanent hearing loss in both ears. You know what would have prevented this? Earplugs. If we are ever having a conversation in a noisy room and I am nodding and smiling a lot, I’m sorry but I probably can’t hear anything you are saying.

Chronic Tennis Elbow

I first noticed I had an achy left arm in 2008. It got worse in 2009 and I mentioned it to a doctor, he didn’t seem very interested and advised me to take painkillers. Thanks Doc. It got really, really bad, I couldn’t lie on it and playing guitar was really painful. I finally went to a physio in 2010 but it was too late. The physio treatment helped a lot but it will probably never get completely better, my brain just gets better at ignoring it – amazing thing the brain.

Fructose Malabsorption

I don’t want to ruin your lunch or dinner, so suffice to say I put up with escalating IBS symptoms for about six years before I went to a specialist in 2010 to get it checked out. By the time I went I felt like the living dead and was convinced I had bowel cancer. I was falling asleep at work, I was grumpy, I had really low B12 levels again and my terrible memory was worrying me. Turns out I couldn’t digest fructose. After coming to terms with all the foods that I could never eat again and changing my diet, I got better. I felt so much better that I couldn’t understand how I had put up with feeling awful for so long.

Chronic Ear Infection

In mid-2011 I got water in my ear at the gym, I got an ear infection. I thought it would get better, it got worse. Again I didn’t see the doctor straight away to get it checked. At the end of 2012 I still had problems with my right ear and after nasal steroids, x-rays and allergy tests it’s not clear (haha) what’s actually wrong with it.

Chronic Leg Pain

My leg started hurting in mid 2012, I ignored it. I ignored it for about 8 months until my foot started cramping and going numb. So I went to the physio – the physio is amazing and slowly fixing the problem, but instead of going to one or two physio sessions early on, you know when it first started hurting I now have to go weekly (which is expensive and painful) until it gets better.

You may have noticed a trend here: lots of the health problems I have could have been treated or diagnosed at much, much earlier stages. Also it seems that I am completely incapable of taking my own advice or learning from experience.

Deep down I think I continue to avoid early treatment because I still think I’m an invincible young person whose body will bounce back from anything life throws at it. And I don’t want anyone to think I’m a hypochondriac. I’ve also avoided spending money on specialists in case, you know, it really is just nothing. But in all these cases, not seeking early treatment has been much more expensive. It’s clichéd, but looking after your health is an investment, it shouldn’t be something you have to think twice about.

I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks like this (or who is scared of being seen as a hypochondriac). Many of us are scared of getting early treatment or advice because we don’t want to have someone confirm there’s something wrong with us; that our bodies are faulty, that they need maintenance, that our bodies decay.

And health problems are for old people, right?

Right?

Clemmie Wetherall is a radio producer on 3CR Community Radio’s ‘Women on the Line’ program, and a Communications intern and Masters of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter @c_wetherall or follow Women on the Line @WomenOnTheLine.

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