How do I check for cancer?

Knowing what’s normal for your body means you’re more likely to recognise something different. Spotting cancer at an early stage can save lives.

What should I look for?

There are more than 200 different types of cancer that can cause many different symptoms, and it’s not possible to know all of them. But what you can know is your own body and what normal means for you.

Some parts of our body we can see and touch – and knowing what they usually look and feel like is a good way of being able to know what’s normal for you. But there’s no need to regularly check yourself at a set time or in a set way.

What about the parts of my body I can’t see or touch?

Changes that happen in parts of our body that we can’t see might be more difficult to spot or describe. But being aware of how you usually feel can help you notice when something’s different – whether it’s a cough that hangs around for a few weeks, spotting blood in your poo, having persistent heartburn or any other change that isn’t normal for you. It’s important not to put a change down to just getting older – get it checked out by your doctor– even if you’re not concerned about it.

What about self-checks?

Lots of people talk about the importance of breast or testicle ‘self-checks’ (also known as self-examinations or self-exams) to try and spot cancer early. But does regularly checking your breasts, testicles or other parts of your body help spot cancer earlier? Or could it actually do more harm than good?

Should I check my breasts?

It’s a good idea from time to time to look at and feel your breasts. But there’s no need to do this regularly at a set time or in a set way. Research has shown that women who regularly self-check their breasts aren’t any less likely to die from breast cancer. But they are almost twice as likely to have a biopsy of a lump that turns out not to be cancer.

So the evidence tells us that regularly checking your breasts doesn’t reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer, but might mean you have unnecessary investigations.

But it’s still a good idea to get to know your body generally (not just your breasts) and keep an eye out for any changes.

Should I check my testicles?

Scientists reviewed the evidence and found no studies of a good enough quality to determine whether testicular self-exams are effective. Regular testicular self-exams may cause unnecessary investigations and anxiety if they pick up harmless lumps that are not cancerous. It’s still a good idea to look at and feel your testicles every now and then, but there’s no need to worry about doing it regularly in a set way at a set time.

Note – Self-checking is different to cancer screening, read more about screening for cancer.

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