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Breast and testicular self-checks for cancer – what’s the evidence?

Lots of people talk about the importance of breast or testicle ‘self-checks’ (also known as self-examinations or self-exams) to increase the chances of spotting cancer early. But what’s the evidence for regularly checking your breasts, testicles or other parts of your body in a set way? And could it actually do more harm than good?

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

Spotting cancer at an early stage can save lives. That’s why it’s a good idea to get to know your body and be familiar with what’s normal for you, so that you’ll be more likely to notice any changes. Getting unusual or persistent changes checked out by your doctor is important, because while it may well not turn out to be cancer, if it is, getting it diagnosed and treated at an early stage can make a real difference. But does this mean we should be regularly checking our breasts or testicles?

Do breast self-examinations reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer?

A 2008 review1 looked at data from trials comparing women who regularly did breast self-examinations with women who didn’t. They found no difference in breast cancer death rates between the two groups. Also women in the self-exam group were almost twice as likely to have a biopsy of a lump that turned 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 it can result in unnecessary investigations. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to get to know your body generally (not just your breasts!) and keep an eye out for any changes.

Do testicular self-examinations reduce the risk of dying from testicular cancer?

Scientists reviewed the evidence in 20112 and found no studies of a good enough quality to determine whether testicular self-exams are effective. Like breast self-exams, regular testicular self-checks 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.

So what’s the take home message?

Cancer Research UK recommends men and women get to know their bodies including looking at and feeling your breasts or testicles from time to time. But there’s no need to do this in a certain way at a particular time each month. Find out more about knowing your body.

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1. Kosters, JP & Gotzsche, PC. 2008. Regular self-examination or clinical examination for early

detection of breast cancer. Cochrane Review.

2. Ilic, D & Misso Ml. 2011. Screening for testicular cancer. Cochrane Review.

Updated: 24 August 2012