In a five part series, find out which medical tests you should never skip to help make sure you stay healthy for a lifetime.

Part One: How to test for heart problems

Nearly 70,000 people in Canada have heart attacks each year and while the symptoms can vary, there are ways to know if you’re at risk.

Cardiologists say there is no single test that will determine if you’re at risk, but there is a set of numbers that are critical to heart health -- your blood pressure.

Dr. Stuart Smith, a cardiologist at St. Mary’s General Hospital, says “By the time Canadians are about 60 years old almost half of us will have high blood pressure whether we like it or not, so part of it is a degenerative disease.”

Having your blood pressure checked is an easy process, and you can do it yourself at most local pharmacies, just put your arm into the cuff, press start and relax. A pharmacist can answer any questions you may have.

For most people, normal blood pressure is 120/80, over 140/90 is considered high.

Personal monitoring is important, says pharmacist Greg Becotte, “It’s empowering for people to know that what they are doing to improve their health, whether it be exercise or changing their diet or taking their medication properly, that they are actually able to see certain results for that.”

And the rest of the prescription for heart health you’ve heard before, be active, don’t smoke and eat healthy.

Dr. Smith says “Symptoms are a late find in any process so if we can look after ourselves and try to monitor these simple things we may be able to at least slow or modify the course of the disease.”

Part Two: Testing for oral cancer

Roughly 3,400 Canadians are diagnosed with oral cancer each year, and the illness has one of the higher death rates because it’s usually discovered in the later stages.

But catching it early can be as simple as going to the dentist regularly.

While smoking is a major risk factor, Dave Holowaty is an oral cancer survivor who was never a smoker.

In 2008 he went to an ear, nose and throat specialist after he got a sore throat that wouldn’t go away.

“That’s where I was diagnosed with stage four squamous cell carcinoma, that’s what the official name is,” he says.

Many people are too busy to listen to their bodies, even when they know something’s wrong, which is why regular dental checkups are key to detecting oral cancer.

Dr. Thelam Nguyen says he checks his dental patients for oral cancer whenever they come in for a routine cleaning.

He says you should be looking for “Any dark red or white patches in the mouth and lumps or bumps, or any canker sore where it’s not supposed to be.”

Other symptoms include bleeding in the mouth, sores that don’t heal in a couple of weeks and a persistent sore throat.

It is a disease that can be treated effectively when detected early and while Holowaty is in the clear now, he will have regular checkups with his oncologist for the next five years.

And there’s a new area of concern, with researchers seeing an increased link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and oral cancer, especially in men.

Part Three: Are you suffering from depression?

We’ve all been there – a bad day, a bad week, even a bad month can push you to the breaking point; but how do you know when it’s developed into something more serious?

Nearly three million Canadians will experience depression in their lives, usually brought on after a traumatic even, but no two cases of depression are the same.

Some early signs of depression include changes in appetite, low energy levels and isolation from friends and family.

Counsellor Holly Mathers says the easiest way to tell if you’re depressed is by doing one of your favourite things.

“If there’s an activity you always love to do and you’re not feeling very motivated to do it, it’s a sign that something’s – something’s not right”, says Mathers.

One of the first steps in preventing depression from escalating is calling a crisis line.  Trained counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help with problems.

If talking doesn’t help, consider seeking out a trained professional like a counsellor, psychiatrist or even your family doctor.

Grand River Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Mazin Al-Battran says general practitioners are often the front lines of depression.

“Not many people recognize this, but most depressions get treated by family physicians.  By the time we receive a referral about depression it’s usually in the moderate to severe range.”

Severe depression typically results from a chemical imbalance in the brain that’s gone unnoticed and untreated for some time.  However, the length of time depends on the individual.

When it comes to different moods, Al Battran says “If somebody’s serotonin and dopamine levels are fine then you probably won’t see the changes.”

Although what form it takes is unique to the individual, many who suffer from depression will likely recover. 

The Canadian Association of Health says 80 per cent of people will recover once they get the help they need.

Part Four: Spotting signs of skin cancer

Skin cancer cases are on the rise, and experts say it’s because people are living longer, with more exposure to the sun.

And while simple prevention like applying sunscreen and covering up is important, you should also pay close attention to changes in your skin.

Dr. Pierre Fortin, a radiation oncologist and Grand River Hospital, says “Any mole that would appear out of nowhere and that the mole is actually growing and changing in appearance is always a little worrisome.”

There are three types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell is the most common and can appear as a reappearing pimple that bleeds, a red scaly patch, a bump with pearly borders or a sore that lasts for more than a month
  • Squamous cell bumps can grow quickly, seem thick, red and scaly, have a wart-like appearance or be crusted skin
  • Melanoma is the most dangerous form and the growth often has an irregular shape or borders and colour variation, all of which can change

“If it’s something that is abnormal and is not going away, it starts to bleed, or starts to present as an ulceration, growing and looks infiltrative, then I think definitely this needs medical attention,” Fortin says.

Dermatologist Dr. Esiahas Amdemichael says nearly half of the 40-60 patients he sees each day come in with skin-cancer related concerns.

But, he adds that it’s preventable if you protect yourself from UV light.

“Stay in the shade as much as possible, but if not, wearing an appropriate hat. It’s always important to apply sunscreen on a regular basis, at least every two to three hours.”

For many older adults who didn’t have that information available 30 years ago, a confirmed diagnosis can mean treatment ranging from surgery to radiation therapy.

And doctors say it’s never too late to start protecting yourself.

Part Five: Glaucoma testing: keeping your sight


It’s the second-leading cause of blindness and affects more than 400,000 people in Canada, but many who have the disease don’t even realize their sight is on the line.

John Flanagan, a professor of optometry and vision science at the University of Waterloo, says it’s a situation he see sees often.

“It’s been estimated that 50 per cent of the people with glaucoma don’t know they have the disease…by the time they patient notices, it’s too late.”

Glaucoma mostly affects seniors, and usually occurs when the eye has a problem draining fluid because vital chambers are clogged.

That back-up causes pressure in the eye to rise, and over time that can damage the optic nerve and impact vision.

Flanagan says regular eye exams are important, and an optometrist can easily check eye pressure and use the latest photographic technology to identify and monitor signs of the disease.

If it is caught early, stabilizing it can be as easy as using daily eye drops.

“Our hope is that disease progression is slowed to an extent that they will never notice their visual disability.”

If left untreated, glaucoma can cause permanent damage, with peripheral vision usually impacted first, then tunnel vision, and in severe case there is complete blindness.

While there is no cure for glaucoma, doctors say if the eye drops don’t work, there are a number of surgeries that can be done to help slow its progress.