When it comes to cancer, bad news often buries the good. Yes, global cancer rates are on the rise. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the number of cases worldwide is predicted to increase to over 28 million –– nearly 50% higher than today. This is partly because longevity is improving in many emerging economies. Our cells change as we grow older in ways that make us more susceptible to cancer. Still, in many developed economies, the cancer survival rate is improving. Early detection deserves much of the credit for that. Most screenings have to be done at a doctor’s office. For self-exams to detect cancer early, there’s one everybody should be doing. There’s another that’s useful for young men. Most surprisingly, one of the most common self-exams for women is no longer recommended. Here’s what you need to know about self exams.
Getting Under Your Skin
Cancer begins following alterations to the genes that control how our cells grow and divide. This can lead to tumors –– abnormal masses of tissue created when cells grow and divide excessively and don’t die. These tumors may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant. Those malignant tumors often invade nearby tissues. Cancerous tumors are usually unseen, metastasizing within the body. Cancers that affect the brain, liver, lungs, and a host of other organs are often first detected by their symptoms. If you’re fatigued no matter how much you sleep, gain or lose weight no matter what you eat, or have a persistent cough, it’s important to see a doctor. The key is being aware of yourself, so that when there is a change you’ll know about it. When cancer affects your largest organ, you may be the best early detector. You’ll need nothing more sophisticated than a couple of mirrors and a hair dryer.
Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of the disease. Fortunately, early detection and treatment makes it one of the most survivable as well. Usually caused by sun exposure, you’ll want to be on the lookout for any growth or mole that changes in size or thickness. Knowing the size and shape of the spots on your body and recognizing when they change is key. Cancerous or pre-cancerous growths tend to be pearly, transparent, tan, brown, black, or multicolored. For moles, look for the ones larger than a pencil eraser that change color or thickness. Keep in mind that birthmarks and some brown spots that don’t appear to be moles can also become cancerous. Watch out for sores or spots that don’t heal in less than one month.
To perform a skin cancer self-exam, your best bet is taking over the bathroom. You’ll need good lighting and a hand mirror along with a full-length one. You’ll want to be totally naked, as skin cancer can crop up anywhere. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you use the following supplies besides the bright light and mirrors: two chairs or stools, a blow-dryer, paper, and a pencil. You’ll want to write down anything unusual as you take a look at yourself from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet. If your head is not shaved, you’ll want to use the blow dryer to lift the hair out of the way and expose the scalp. The hand mirror will help you detect anything unusual. A friend or family member can also help you with this part, if not the rest.
A thorough exam includes checking your back and buttocks in the mirrors. It means taking a look at your fingernails and toenails when they are bare. You should look under your arms and inside your mouth. You’ll want to lift up your breasts with your hands and look underneath. If you have body hair, you’ll need to make sure it isn’t covering any suspicious moles or blemishes. By sitting on one chair or stool and propping one leg on the other, you can use the hand mirror to check your genitals for any discolorations. If you have pubic hair, you’ll want to push it aside as much as possible. The flashlight function on your phone may also be helpful. Finally you’ll want to examine the soles of your feet.
Chances are you’ll see parts of your body you haven’t viewed for a while. That’s the point. Skin cancer can be quite stealthy and the only way to be certain is to thoroughly check. If you do detect something unusual, it’s worth a visit to the dermatologist. Finally, make sure to practice prevention –– being extra cautious of the time you spend outdoors in the summer between noon and three, and always wear sunscreen with an SPF over 30.
Just for Men
For men between the ages of 20 and 40, testicular cancer is the most common form of the disease. It can occur at any age, which is why self screening can be valuable for teen boys. Fortunately, it is very treatable with a cure rate of around 95%. Early detection improves the odds. During a bath or shower, when the scrotum’s skin is relaxed, lift your penis out of the way so you can examine each testicle. Hold it between your fingers and thumb and roll it gently. Although it is normal for one to be bigger than the other, you are looking for any hard lumps or nodules. You also want to be aware of any changes in your testicle’s size or shape –– one reason regular self-examination is so important. Finally, keep in mind that blood vessels and the epididymis (a small tube on the upper or middle outer side of the testis) can feel like small bumps. Once you become familiar with your own anatomy, you’ll be less likely to suspect something benign.
Perhaps the most familiar self-exam is the one many experts are no longer recommending. Most women learned about examining their breasts for lumps. Doctors often perform a similar hands-on check during appointments. However, recent research suggests that there isn’t a clear benefit to these exams –– especially when women are already having regular mammograms. However, women should pay attention to any changes in the size or shape of their breasts. Also, if you have a family history of breast cancer, self-exam may still be warranted. Counterintuitively, men over the age of 60 are now encouraged to perform a self exam. This is because, while they are at risk for breast cancer, they can’t get mammograms. So, checking in the shower or bath for any discharge, puckering, or retraction of the breast and nipples along with any changes in skin color or lumps is important.
The key to early detection is being aware of your body, how it looks day-to-day, and how it performs. By being vigilant, you can make a real difference in your treatment and recovery by finding cancers early.
Written by John Bankston
- Global Cancer Statistics 2020: GLOBOCAN Estimates of Incidence and Mortality Worldwide for 36 Cancers in 185 Countries – Sung – 2021 – CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians – Wiley Online Library
- Cancer survival rates | The Nuffield Trust
- Definition of tumor – NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms
- Skin layers: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image
- Self-Exams – The Skin Cancer Foundation
- Testicular Cancer Statistics | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Testicular Cancer Screening | Finding Testicular Cancer Early
- ACS Breast Cancer Early Detection Recommendations
- 8 Self-Exams