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  • Health & Medicine

Is there a right way to check your body for cancer? 

Amy Hirst
by Amy Hirst | In depth

29 March 2022

16 comments 16 comments

A patient having a consultation with their doctor

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 Dr 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 fixated 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 fixating 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 catalogue how your breast feel will do much other than cause 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 a 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 habits 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


    Comments

  • David
    27 April 2022

    Unfortunately our news is that we have been let down or unlucky, my partner has for several years undergone regular colonoscopy, in January 2022 he was diagnosed with Metistasis bowel cancer. Very disappointed

  • Patricia Barnicott
    26 April 2022

    Interesting! In 1996 when I had my left masectomy for cancer, I was advised to check myself once a month. I still do that!

  • Rosemary Burdass
    25 April 2022

    Thank you for the info and reassurance

  • Jo.Butler
    25 April 2022

    Useful info.

  • Graham Dane
    24 April 2022

    This is surprising and goes against lots of things I have read. I trust CRUK because you are solidly based on research. It’s nice to know that I shouldn’t be checking my testicles regularly as I find it uncomfortable but the advice to, “know your body” seems to contradict that.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 May 2022

    Hi Graham,
    It’s important to know what your testicles normally look and feel like, including their usual size and weight. This will make it easier to notice unusual changes, which you should get checked out by a health professional.

    But there is no strict guidance on how and when you should check your testicles, as there is no self-checking method that has overall proven benefits.

    The best thing you can do is listen to your body and speak to your doctor if something doesn’t look or feel quite right – no matter how you found it.

    We hope this helps,
    Jacob

  • Bonnie Margo
    24 April 2022

    I check my breasts once a month as told to me by a nurse many years ago, I hold my hand up high on the side i am testing and press down on the top, base and sides of the breast individually. My mother had breast cancer and my father had bowel cancer so I am very vigilant.

  • Wendy sturgess
    23 April 2022

    Useful and interesting

  • Elaine
    23 April 2022

    Very informative & reassuring. Thank you for all your important work.

  • David Bullock
    23 April 2022

    I have read this article several times, and I found it to be confusing and contradictory. In my opinion a lump or hard mass needs investigation. So how can finding an abnormal change during a regular body check as opposed to non regular check lead to unnecessary investigation? I would welcome an explanation.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 May 2022

    Hi David,

    If you find something that isn’t normal for you, no matter how you find it, you should speak to your doctor.

    But doing regular breast self-checks makes it more likely people will pick up benign changes that aren’t harmful. Twice as many harmless abnormalities are investigated in people who perform self-checks, but no extra lives are saved.

    Being aware of what’s normal for your body will make it easier to spot unusual changes, so it’s good to have a look and feel of your breasts so you know what’s normal for you. You just don’t need to worry about having a regular or strict routine, as there is no evidence it is helpful.

    We hope this helps,
    Jacob

  • Chris.
    23 April 2022

    Testing
    Must be about being able to spot early signs of cancer

  • Beverley Newbold
    23 April 2022

    I found this really helpful- especially the notion of not fixating on checking 😄

  • Helen Darnes
    22 April 2022

    Another symptom of breast cancer is to have pain in the breast. This happened to me, the tumour was behind the breast so I couldn’t see any difference and it was too deep to feel it. Perhaps you could include this as a symptom in your articles and leaflets.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Helen,

    We are really sorry to hear about your diagnosis. In most cases breast pain won’t be cancer, but it’s always best to talk to your doctor if it’s not usual for you or not going away. We have more on breast pain and cancer symptoms here: Breast Cancer Symptoms

    Jacob

  • Stuart Ogden
    22 April 2022

    It is most welcome to hear good sound advice. I have been reluctant to contact my GP, but I will certainly do so now. Thank you so much.

  • Cynthia Brown
    22 April 2022

    I’ve found this information surprising but reassuring. I feel so much more relaxed now about checking my breasts and knowing there’s no right or wrong way about knowing what is “right” for me. It’s like a weight being lifted from my shoulders.

  • carol
    21 April 2022

    what about checks for melanoma

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Carol,

    It is important to be aware of what’s normal for your own body – this includes knowing what your skin and moles normally look like, as this will make it easier to notice if anything changes.

    But there’s no need to do regular skin checks in a certain way. The best thing you can do is listen to your body, and contact your doctor if you notice any changes that are unusual for you. Whether it’s a mark or mole that’s new, has changed or been there for a while, tell your doctor if you notice any of these:
    • A change in a patch of skin or a nail
    • A new growth or sore that won’t heal
    • A spot, mole or sore that itches or hurts
    • A mole or growth that bleeds, oozes, crusts or scabs
    • Any other changes that aren’t normal for you

    The ABCDE checklist can also help you to know what signs of skin cancer to look out for which you can read more about here: Melanoma Symptoms

    Jacob

  • Nicky WIlliams
    21 April 2022

    What advice would you suggest to self-check for bowel cancer? This often gets confused for IBS, a digestive disorder or the menopause.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Nicky,

    As there are over 200 different types of cancer, with many different signs and symptoms, it’s not possible to know them all. Instead, people should listen to their body and contact their GP if they notice any changes that are unusual for them or not going away.

    This could be things like a change in your bowel habits, blood in your poo or pain in the abdomen – but whatever the change, if it’s not quite right, it’s best to get it checked out.

    Cancer symptoms can be similar to symptoms of other more common conditions, and in most cases, it won’t be cancer. But if it’s not normal for you, your GP will want to hear from you.

    We also encourage people to consider taking up their invitation for bowel screening. Bowel screening looks for early signs of bowel cancer when treatment is more likely to be successful. You will receive your first invite between the ages of 50-60 depending on where you live in the UK. Screening is for people with no symptoms, so even if you’ve been screened, or are waiting to be screened, talk to your doctor if something’s not normal for you.

    Find out more about bowel cancer screening here: Bowel Cancer Screening

    Jacob

    Comments

  • David
    27 April 2022

    Unfortunately our news is that we have been let down or unlucky, my partner has for several years undergone regular colonoscopy, in January 2022 he was diagnosed with Metistasis bowel cancer. Very disappointed

  • Patricia Barnicott
    26 April 2022

    Interesting! In 1996 when I had my left masectomy for cancer, I was advised to check myself once a month. I still do that!

  • Rosemary Burdass
    25 April 2022

    Thank you for the info and reassurance

  • Jo.Butler
    25 April 2022

    Useful info.

  • Graham Dane
    24 April 2022

    This is surprising and goes against lots of things I have read. I trust CRUK because you are solidly based on research. It’s nice to know that I shouldn’t be checking my testicles regularly as I find it uncomfortable but the advice to, “know your body” seems to contradict that.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 May 2022

    Hi Graham,
    It’s important to know what your testicles normally look and feel like, including their usual size and weight. This will make it easier to notice unusual changes, which you should get checked out by a health professional.

    But there is no strict guidance on how and when you should check your testicles, as there is no self-checking method that has overall proven benefits.

    The best thing you can do is listen to your body and speak to your doctor if something doesn’t look or feel quite right – no matter how you found it.

    We hope this helps,
    Jacob

  • Bonnie Margo
    24 April 2022

    I check my breasts once a month as told to me by a nurse many years ago, I hold my hand up high on the side i am testing and press down on the top, base and sides of the breast individually. My mother had breast cancer and my father had bowel cancer so I am very vigilant.

  • Wendy sturgess
    23 April 2022

    Useful and interesting

  • Elaine
    23 April 2022

    Very informative & reassuring. Thank you for all your important work.

  • David Bullock
    23 April 2022

    I have read this article several times, and I found it to be confusing and contradictory. In my opinion a lump or hard mass needs investigation. So how can finding an abnormal change during a regular body check as opposed to non regular check lead to unnecessary investigation? I would welcome an explanation.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 May 2022

    Hi David,

    If you find something that isn’t normal for you, no matter how you find it, you should speak to your doctor.

    But doing regular breast self-checks makes it more likely people will pick up benign changes that aren’t harmful. Twice as many harmless abnormalities are investigated in people who perform self-checks, but no extra lives are saved.

    Being aware of what’s normal for your body will make it easier to spot unusual changes, so it’s good to have a look and feel of your breasts so you know what’s normal for you. You just don’t need to worry about having a regular or strict routine, as there is no evidence it is helpful.

    We hope this helps,
    Jacob

  • Chris.
    23 April 2022

    Testing
    Must be about being able to spot early signs of cancer

  • Beverley Newbold
    23 April 2022

    I found this really helpful- especially the notion of not fixating on checking 😄

  • Helen Darnes
    22 April 2022

    Another symptom of breast cancer is to have pain in the breast. This happened to me, the tumour was behind the breast so I couldn’t see any difference and it was too deep to feel it. Perhaps you could include this as a symptom in your articles and leaflets.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Helen,

    We are really sorry to hear about your diagnosis. In most cases breast pain won’t be cancer, but it’s always best to talk to your doctor if it’s not usual for you or not going away. We have more on breast pain and cancer symptoms here: Breast Cancer Symptoms

    Jacob

  • Stuart Ogden
    22 April 2022

    It is most welcome to hear good sound advice. I have been reluctant to contact my GP, but I will certainly do so now. Thank you so much.

  • Cynthia Brown
    22 April 2022

    I’ve found this information surprising but reassuring. I feel so much more relaxed now about checking my breasts and knowing there’s no right or wrong way about knowing what is “right” for me. It’s like a weight being lifted from my shoulders.

  • carol
    21 April 2022

    what about checks for melanoma

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Carol,

    It is important to be aware of what’s normal for your own body – this includes knowing what your skin and moles normally look like, as this will make it easier to notice if anything changes.

    But there’s no need to do regular skin checks in a certain way. The best thing you can do is listen to your body, and contact your doctor if you notice any changes that are unusual for you. Whether it’s a mark or mole that’s new, has changed or been there for a while, tell your doctor if you notice any of these:
    • A change in a patch of skin or a nail
    • A new growth or sore that won’t heal
    • A spot, mole or sore that itches or hurts
    • A mole or growth that bleeds, oozes, crusts or scabs
    • Any other changes that aren’t normal for you

    The ABCDE checklist can also help you to know what signs of skin cancer to look out for which you can read more about here: Melanoma Symptoms

    Jacob

  • Nicky WIlliams
    21 April 2022

    What advice would you suggest to self-check for bowel cancer? This often gets confused for IBS, a digestive disorder or the menopause.

  • reply
    Jacob Smith
    27 April 2022

    Hi Nicky,

    As there are over 200 different types of cancer, with many different signs and symptoms, it’s not possible to know them all. Instead, people should listen to their body and contact their GP if they notice any changes that are unusual for them or not going away.

    This could be things like a change in your bowel habits, blood in your poo or pain in the abdomen – but whatever the change, if it’s not quite right, it’s best to get it checked out.

    Cancer symptoms can be similar to symptoms of other more common conditions, and in most cases, it won’t be cancer. But if it’s not normal for you, your GP will want to hear from you.

    We also encourage people to consider taking up their invitation for bowel screening. Bowel screening looks for early signs of bowel cancer when treatment is more likely to be successful. You will receive your first invite between the ages of 50-60 depending on where you live in the UK. Screening is for people with no symptoms, so even if you’ve been screened, or are waiting to be screened, talk to your doctor if something’s not normal for you.

    Find out more about bowel cancer screening here: Bowel Cancer Screening

    Jacob