What to Look for When You’re Checking for Cancer
For some cancers, there are almost no symptoms in the early stages. With these types of cancers, your best bet for early detection is to talk with your doctor about your particular cancer risks and which screening tests you should have—and when. For example, colon cancer has no early symptoms, but a colonoscopy exam can detect pre-cancerous polyps.
For other cancers, self exams can be a good tool for early detection. These cancers include skin, testicular and breast cancers.
Examine your moles for signs of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Follow the ABCD rule:
- Asymmetry—one side of the mole doesn’t match the other.
- Border irregularity—the mole’s edges are ragged.
- Color—the mole is not one color, but shades of black, brown and tan.
- Diameter—the mole should not be wider than a pencil eraser. Sudden changes in mole size warrant a visit to the doctor.
You should examine your skin regularly. If you see anything that looks suspicious—any lesions or other marks—call your doctor.
Once a month, after a warm shower, men should examine their testicles.
- Stand in front of a mirror and look for signs of swelling on the skin of the scrotum.
- For each testicle, place your thumbs on top and your index and middle fingers underneath.
- Roll the testicle gently between your fingers to feel for the epididymis. This is a soft, tube-like structure. You should become familiar with how this feels so that you don’t mistake it for a lump.
- Continue examining the testicles for lumps
If you do find a lump, make an appointment with your doctor.
The breast self-exam (BSE) is just one component of a breast cancer screening program. The other two are mammograms and clinical breast exams (performed by a healthcare provider).
Last fall, a study in China, published in the 2 October 2002 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, concluded that having women perform BSEs did not increase breast cancer survival rates. But the American Cancer Society (ACS) still recommends BSEs once a month, beginning at age 20, saying that performing them, while continuing to have mammograms and clinical breast exams, increases a woman “body awareness” and helps make her alert to breast changes. To perform the exam:
- Stand in front of a mirror. Raise your arms and check your breasts for any changes in size or shape. Look for dimpling or puckering. Gently squeeze your nipples to see whether there’s any discharge.
- Lie down. Put a towel under your right shoulder and your right arm under your head. Using your three middle fingers, press all around the breast, from your collarbone to your bra line and from your armpit to your breast bone. Press lightly, then with medium pressure, then with more pressure. Repeat on the left side. If you prefer, you can do this phase of the BSE in the shower.
Be in tune with your body—know the seven signs of cancer
Performing self-exams is one important thing you can do on your own to detect certain cancers. Being in tune to any changes in your body is also important. In its early stages, cancer often doesn’t cause pain, but there are warning signs to be aware of:
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- A thickening or lump anywhere on the body
- Difficulty swallowing or indigestion
- A sore throat that won’t heal
- Unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina or nipple
- Changes in a wart or mole (as we mentioned above in the skin cancer exam section)
- A nagging cough or hoarse voice
If you experience any of these changes, see your doctor to find out the cause.
For more cancer information, visit the National
Cancer Institute website.
American Cancer Society; Cancer Research Foundation of America; National Cancer Institute