An annual checkup is important for your whole health. Even if you’re feeling healthy and tempted to skip this year’s exam, a checkup provides an opportunity for you to connect with your doctor and to identify issues or concerns before symptoms appear.
During your annual wellness exam, your provider will check your risk for chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. In fact, PCPs are your front line of defense against cancer. Your doctor will:
- Discuss risk factors
- Evaluate suspicious symptoms
- Recommend needed tests and screenings (depending on your age, family history and medical history)
How Physical Exams Can Detect Signs of Cancer
The more regularly you see your provider, the more likely you are to recognize health changes and symptoms that can indicate cancer. During routine well exams, your doctor will evaluate your:
Your physician will feel the lymph nodes in your neck, groin and armpits to see if they’re enlarged. Lymph nodes contain immune cells that help fight infection by attacking and destroying germs. However, swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of infection, injury or cancer.
While many of us cringe at the thought of getting on the scale to officially record our weight, asking you to step on the scale is a necessary part of your exam. Unfortunately, being overweight or obese is linked with a number of cancers, including:
- Breast (in women past menopause)
- Endometrium (lining of the uterus)
If necessary, you and your doctor can begin to work on a strategy to help you lose weight in a healthy and long-lasting way.
Nervous System and Mouth
Your provider will check your nervous system responses. Some concerning changes that could alert your doctor to the possibility of brain cancer include:
- Coordination problems – inability to stand up or difficulty using hands
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Persistent headaches
- Vision changes
Your nose, mouth, throat and ears will also be checked for any signs of head, neck or oral cancers. Your doctor will ask you about or look for:
- Ear pain or trouble hearing
- Lip or mouth sores that won’t heal
- Lumps in your nose, neck or throat
- Nasal obstruction
- White or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
You should also let your doctor know if you have a persistent cough or a cough that brings up bloody mucus, especially if you have other risk factors for lung cancer. A lung CT, which can give more definitive information on the condition of your lungs, may be recommended.
You’ll be checked for moles, birthmarks or other pigmented areas that are abnormal in color, size, shape or texture since they can signal skin cancer. If any abnormalities are identified, you’ll be referred to a specialist.
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
Among other baselines, A CBC examines the amount and type of blood cells. A low white blood cell count can be a sign of leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
A sample of your urine gives information about your sugar, protein, red and white blood cells, and can be used to detect kidney and urothelial cancers.
Common Cancer Screenings
Some common cancer screenings occur during an annual physical with your PCP, while others will take place at an imaging center or a specialist, such as a gynecologist or a urologist.
During a man’s physical, a provider will perform a digital rectal exam (DRE) to detect an abnormal prostate or prostate cancer. Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may order a PSA test. This blood test looks at the level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which is made by the prostate. Higher than normal PSA levels can signal prostate cancer.
A Pap smear or Pap test can detect cervical cancer. During the test, cells are collected from your cervix and vagina and viewed under a microscope for any abnormalities.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) screenings can also detect cervical cancer. Cells are collected from your cervix to check for an infection caused by a type of HPV linked to cervical cancer.
A woman’s primary care provider or OB/GYN will check breasts for lumps and any unusual changes. Depending on your age, a mammogram will also be ordered.
A screening mammogram is an annual preventative measure for women age 40 and older who haven’t experienced abnormal breast symptoms. However, if you have a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors, a screening mammogram may be recommended before age 40.
Depending on your age and risk factors, your primary care provider may order a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy can detect polyps or growths in the colon or rectum. New colonoscopy guidelines recommend patients start having the screening at 45.
In addition to a colonoscopy, several other screening tests can detect colon cancer, including a fecal occult blood test that checks for blood in your stool. Testing a sample of your stool can help doctors look for blood and biomarkers found in colon cancer.
Take Advantage of Proactive Whole-Person Care
Annual checkups are an important way to protect your complete health, including safeguarding yourself against cancer. Turn to one of our primary care experts for guidance and whole-person care.