Cancer sucks. We still don't know exactly what causes it or how to reliably cure it. Our best chance is catching it early enough for treatment to have a fighting chance, and the best way to catch it early is to know what to look for and examine yourself regularly.
While there are lots of different types of cancer, we're focusing on three that have well-established self-check exams you should be performing on yourself routinely: breast, testicular and skin cancer. Note that due to the nature of the information in this post, a couple of the videos below are NSFW.
Examine Your Breasts Once Per Month
Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is more common in people over 50. It mostly occurs in women, but it can also occur very rarely in men. In 2008, 113 men in Australia were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Check out the video above (NSFW for actual breasts being checked) from MedStar Georgetown University Hospital for a demonstration. If you can't watch the video, here's the rundown.
The best time to perform a self-exam is about one week after menstruation begins. If you no longer menstruate, just pick a day of the month that's easy to remember. Remove your clothes from the waist up and lie down, which causes the breast tissue to expand over your chest. This makes the tissue as thin as possible, which in turn makes it easier to feel what you're looking for.
Use the pads of your three middle fingers to apply pressure to your breast. You'll want to feel at three different levels, using a light, medium and firm pressure. You can examine your breasts using a spiral pattern or grid pattern, whichever you prefer. The idea is to methodically examine every part of your breast.
When performing the self exam, you're not just looking for lumps in the breast. According to the Breast Cancer Care WA, you're looking for any of the following:
- A lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast tissue.
- Skin changes such as dimpling, puckering or redness.
- Nipple changes such as an unusual discharge, the nipple pointing in rather than out (unless it has always been this way) or an itchy/ulcerated area.
- A part of the breast that feels different from the rest of the breast.
- A new and persistent pain.
If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. If you'd like to learn more about breast cancer, here are a couple of excellent resources:
- Breast Cancer Network Australia. Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) works to ensure that Australians affected by breast cancer receive the very best support, information, treatment and care appropriate to their individual needs.
- Cancer Australia. Cancer Australia was established by the Australian Government in 2006 to benefit all Australians affected by cancer, and their families and carers.
- National Breast Cancer Foundation. The National Breast Cancer Foundation is the leading community-funded organisation in Australia raising money for research into the prevention and cure of breast cancer.
Examine Your Testicles Once Per Month
Testicular cancer is most common in men ages 15 to 35, but can occur in men of any age. Testicular cancer is very treatable and can be caught early by regular self-exams.
Check out the video above (NSFW for actual testicles being examined). If you can't watch the video, here's the process.
According to betterhealth.vic.gov.au, it's best to do the exam during or after a warm shower, since the scrotum will be relaxed. Hold your penis out of the way with your off hand. With your other hand, check one testicle at a time. Roll the testicle gently between your thumb and fingers.
Here's what you're looking for:
- Hard lumps or smooth rounded bumps
- An enlarged or heavier-than-usual testicle
- A shrinking testicle
- Pain in the testicle or a dull ache in the lower abdomen or groin
Note that you will feel some other things in there, like blood vessels, tubes that carry sperm and so on. So getting to know how your testicles feel is important. If you have any questions, or if you spot something that worries you, talk to your doctor.
If you'd like to learn more about testicular cancer, here are a couple of excellent resources:
Examine Your Skin At Least Once Per Month
Skin cancer can affect any person of any age. It's the most common type of cancer and it's one of the easiest to cure, if it's detected and diagnosed early. Before you get started with monthly self-exams, you may want to have a full body exam by your dermatologist first. That baseline of information will help your doctor determine changes to your skin over time.
Check out the video above to see how to check your skin. Basically, you need to remove all of your clothing and stand in front of a full-length mirror in a well-lit room. Start at the top by examining your face and scalp (you'll need a comb and maybe a blowdryer for that part). Work your way down your body, checking hands, arms, torso, groin, buttocks, legs and feet. Don't forget to check under your arms, between your fingers and toes, and under your breasts. To examine your back, you'll need a hand mirror in addition to the full length mirror.
On your first exam, note all your moles, freckles, birthmarks and so on. To do this, it's easiest to use a body map. You can download a body map in PDF format from the Skin Cancer Foundation that provides you with a nice outline of a body for marking up as well as an examination schedule for tracking your exams.
It may go without saying, but if you have a partner to help you out, things will go much easier.
As you perform your exam, here's what the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you look for:
- Any skin growth that increases in size and appears pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black, or multicoured.
- A mole or birthmark that changes colour, size or texture.
- A mole or birthmark that has an irregular outline or is bigger than 6mm (about the width of a pencil eraser).
- Any new mole or birthmark that appears after age 21.
- A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab, erode or bleed and does not heal within three weeks.
If you'd like to learn more about skin cancer, here are a couple of excellent resources: