Don't put off the vital checks on offer that could save your life

Doctor wrong? Writing yourself a checklist will help you get the most out of your appointment. ©iStock

Getting yourself checked over could give you peace of mind – we reveal four life-saving health tests ©iStock

Many people avoid tests that they think will hurt, be embarrassing or have scary results, but this can delay valuable treatment or reassurance.

Doctors and nurses understand our fears and will take time to explain, backed up by leaflets, but only if we tell them our symptoms or attend for screening (routine checks before symptoms appear).

So, if you have been lately putting it off, knowing more could help you to make that appointment.

Smear test

Cervical screening tests cells from the womb neck (cervix) for pre-cancerous changes and HPV (human papilloma virus), which is linked to cervical cancer.

Screening has halved death rates since the 1980s, but it still affects over 3,000 UK women each year, and, worryingly, screening rates are falling.

Screening is offered to women aged 25 to 65 who are registered with a GP and can be carried out, with a chaperone if wished, by your GP, practice nurse or local clinic (find one at nhs.uk).

A plastic instrument is used to open your vagina (front passage) so a soft brush can gently collect cells from your cervix. After the menopause, pre-treatment with oestrogen cream may make this process more comfortable.

You’ll get the results (and date of your next test) in a couple of weeks. If minor abnormalities are detected, you’ll need an outpatient colposcopy test.

This uses a microscope to locate abnormal cells which can then be removed using a local anaesthetic (usually by laser).

You’ll then need more frequent smears initially.

Endoscopy

This examines internal organs using a telescope – for example, a gastroscopy which looks inside your tummy, colonoscopy (bowel), hysteroscopy (womb), bronchoscopy (lungs), or cystoscopy (bladder).

It can usually be performed as a day case, with a sedative if necessary to help you relax. You may need a local or general anaesthetic if tissue is removed.

You may be advised to starve or take laxatives beforehand, and to ask someone to take you home and stay until the sedative wears off. You’ll be told what was found, but tissue analysis can take several more days.

CT/MRI scans

These use X-rays or magnetic fields to take detailed ‘pictures’ of internal organs. They don’t hurt but you’ll need to lie on a bed which slides into the machine.

MRI scans are noisy, so you need headphones.

Most people cope easily by closing their eyes and listening to music, but you’ll need to keep still for some time, so take a painkiller or ask for a relaxant if necessary.

Find out more by watching a video online at rcr.ac.uk/public-and-media/what-expect-when

Breast biopsy

This process takes cell samples from a lump you may have found, or which has shown up on an ultrasound or mammogram.

You’ll have a local anaesthetic (but feel some pressure), or a general anaesthetic if the lump is fully removed (excised).

Fine needle aspiration (FNA), using a needle and syringe, is also used to drain fluid from breast cysts.

Tissue or fluid analysis takes about a week, but if there are any signs of cancer, additional tests for hormone receptors and certain genes will take a little longer.

7 questions to ask your doctor

1. Why do I need this test – what are you trying to rule in/out?

2. When will it be, what’s involved and is any special preparation needed?

3. Can I have something to relax me?

4. How will I feel afterwards, and will I need any help?

5. How and when will I receive the results, and/or advice on any more tests or treatment?

6. Is there an information leaflet and where can I find out more? (Try nhs.uk.)

7. What should I do if the test is normal, but I get new or worsening symptoms?