We’ve heard for years about the importance of conducting routine self-exams. For many women, a breast self-exam is a monthly habit. However, there’s an ongoing discussion in the medical community as to whether or not self-examinations make a difference. Here’s a look at a few common self-exams, the current recommendations and how they can help.
“The purpose of self-exams is essentially preventive care – to catch an early cancer or problem by the patient so that they can alert their medical provider,” says Brad Burget, an INTEGRIS internist and pediatrician. “In recent years, there are some who have moved away from routinely recommending self-exams. I feel [that] the way the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) puts it is perfect. They call for ‘breast self-awareness’ as opposed to doing breast self-examinations. Essentially, ACOG says that routine, systematic self-exams may not be necessary but rather, women should be educated to ‘be attuned to noticing a change or potential problem with her breasts.’”
Teresa Hardesty, an internist with Warren Clinic, says that although there has been much debate regarding the benefit of breast self-exams, these at-home practices can help identify early signs of breast cancer.
“Self-exams allow you to become familiar with your unique anatomy and can help you identify changes, which could be early signs of potential malignancies,” she says. “Women who do choose to perform self-exams should assess their breast tissue for nodules, masses, discharge from the nipple, or skin changes such as dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin. The exam should cover the entire breast tissue from the collarbone to the top of the abdomen and from the armpit to the sternum.”
It’s important to note, however, that this change in verbiage is meant for women with an average risk for breast cancer. Women with a higher risk should consult their physicians for the recommended screening guidelines. Women at higher risk include those with a family history of breast cancer, women with an inherited gene mutation, and women with a personal history of breast cancer.
Burget says testicular exams are another example where individuals should be ‘body aware’ while not necessarily doing routine self-exams. General recommendations for monthly testicular self-exams are for those with risk factors – such as an undescended or absent testicle, a family history of testicular cancer, and/or previous personal history of testicular cancer.
“Routine clinical testing is usually done for symptomatic patients only,” says Hardesty. “Men who choose to do self-exams should assess for masses, soreness, swelling or changes in size over time. Any abnormalities should be discussed with their physician as soon as possible. Abnormalities are not always a sign of cancer and can be related to infection or enlarged veins.”
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends regularly checking your skin and moles following the ‘ABCDEs of Melanoma.’
Asymmetry: One half of the spot is unlike the other half.
Border: The spot has an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
Color: The spot has varying colors from one area to the next.
Diameter: The spot is greater than 6 millimeters.
Evolving: The spot looks different from the rest on the body or is changing in size, shape or color.
If you notice any of the above symptoms, see your physician.
“Prevention is key and using sun block with SPF 50+, wide brimmed hats, and covering your body with heat resistant clothing when outdoors is always encouraged,” says Burget.