How to check for breast or testicular cancer gets searched online thousands of times a month. It’s understandable that this is something that people are looking for answers to, when it’s well known that early diagnosis saves lives.
But our advice on how to check your body for cancer may not be what you are expecting, as there is no science-backed, ‘right’ way of doing it.
So, here’s the lowdown on self-examinations.
What are self-examinations and should I be doing them?
Self-examinations are when you check certain parts of your body regularly, at a set time or in a specific way, to look for cancer.
When it comes to self-examinations, there is no good evidence that they are beneficial. And in some cases, can even be harmful.
This information might be surprising. And it may even be different to something you’ve heard before. But if you’re searching for self-checking instructions, or are anxious you’re not checking yourself right, be reassured that there’s no proven method that saves lives.
The most important thing is that you are aware of what’s normal for you, and you tell your doctor when something isn’t quite right.
By far the most often talked about areas when it comes to ‘self-checking’ are breasts or chest and testicles. Here’s what the evidence says.
Breast self-examinations – what does the evidence show?
There’s a lot out there on checking your breasts. This type of advice may tell you to check yourself at a set time each week or month. Or recommend certain positions, hand movements or finger pressures.
But the best research shows that there is no advantage to regularly checking your breasts or chest, at a set time or in a set way.
Because of this, the UK stopped advising a strict routine of breast self-examination back in 1991.
A review in 2003 looked at all the available evidence, including 2 large studies involving 388,535 women. It found that women who conduct regular breast self-examinations aren’t any less likely to die from breast cancer.
But they are almost twice as likely to be referred for further testing, and have an unnecessary surgical test (called a biopsy) on a lump that turns out not to be cancer. This also often leads to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety.
We spoke to Dr Ameesh Patel, North East London GP and Havering North Primary Care Network Cancer Lead, about what this means in practice.
“Certain studies with large populations are suggesting that over checking can actually lead to greater anxiety and greater findings of normal abnormalities. Breasts and testicles are really common locations to develop cysts or fibroadenomas, which are just normal tissues, and not cancerous in the slightest,” says Patel “And because of that, you might be referred for an unnecessary diagnostic investigation, such as scans, or even biopsies, which can be invasive.
The advice now is not to be fixed on checking on a regular basis – unless you’ve been told to do so by a healthcare professional.”
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t feel your breasts every now and then.
“You should be body aware, which means you should be aware, from a young age, of your body appearance and what the feel of your body is, and then you have a good baseline of normality for you”
How can I be ‘breast aware’?
Being breast aware means knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally, and what they’re like at different times of the month, so it’s easier to notice if anything changes.
For example, some people may find they have lumpier breasts around their period. But if the lumpiness comes and goes with your menstrual cycle, it’s usually nothing to worry about. And if you no longer have periods, usually your breasts will feel softer and not as lumpy.
It’s not just about lumps. If you spot any unusual changes to your breasts, chest or nipples, this includes the area up to your armpits and collarbone, never ignore it – speak to your GP.
Read more about breast cancer symptoms.
Is there a right or wrong way to be chest or breast aware?
Being breast aware without unnecessarily fixing on when and how you’re doing it can be a fine balance.
If it makes you more comfortable to learn about your normal body in a certain way, such as in the mirror or in a shower, then that’s fine. And if you notice a change when you’re doing something like putting on your bra, make sure to see a doctor.
But there’s no evidence that setting an alarm for the 2nd Tuesday of every month to catalog how your breast feel will do much other than cause a lot of extra worry and possible unnecessary invasive tests.
Is there a special way I need to check my testicles?
It’s a good idea to know what your testicles usually look and feel like and be aware of their usual size and weight.
But there’s no self-checking method that has overall proven benefits. And there’s not enough evidence to promote a specific way for the general population to check themselves.
Right now, the best thing you can do is have the occasional look and feel to help you be more aware. Some people find it easier to do this after a warm bath or shower when the skin around the testicles is more relaxed – but get to know your body in whatever way works best for you.
“Patients often ask ‘should I be checking my breasts or my testicles on a regular basis? And how often should I check?’ …My answer these days is there is no set time frame.
There is no set way of checking and really if you have concerns about something you’ve picked up…. you should seek help and you should seek a professional examination from your doctor” – Dr Ameesh Patel
The bottom line
We don’t have a strict one-size fits all instruction manual, as every person’s body is different. And clinical trials are yet to have found a gold-standard method of checking for cancer that can actually save lives.
But if something is unusual for you or isn’t going away – report it to your doctor. Whether that’s a change you can see or touch, or a change to how your body works (like a change in bowel clothes or a cough that won’t go away).
It’s not your job to know what’s wrong, and you’re not wasting the doctor’s time by asking for help. In most cases it will be something much less serious than cancer. But if it is, spotting it early can make a real difference