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Know your body to defeat cancer

Written By Nicholas Steer

Early detection can mean all the difference when it comes to a cancer diagnosis: 

According to Cancer Research UK, there are more than 200 types of cancer. Each one introduces different symptoms and causes different reactions and affects different parts of the body. For most people, this is such a daunting concept – how can they possibly know all these symptoms and cancers and protect against them? The answer is a lot easier than you think – self-examination as part of an active surveillance process can empower you as the patient. Know your body, recognise the warning signs and get your concerns checked out by your healthcare provider because early detection saves lives.

“The World Health Organisation advocates regular self-examination, and it is something that I believe in,” says Dr Naomi du Toit, Clinical Oncologist at Cancer care Vergelegen, in Somerset -West, “Just by following the basic steps of self-examination you can do something to pick up cancer earlier and take responsibility for your health.”

Woman cancers

Two of the most common cancers are breast cancer in woman and skin cancer, and there are steps you can take to detect things early.  While the statistics for breast cancer in men are much lower than those for women, the American Cancer Association estimates that around 2,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed and that around 480 men will die from breast cancer each year

“Make this exam a part of your daily life,” says du Toit. “For women, the best time of the month is a few days after their period as breasts are lumpier during that time. If you are post-menopausal, just set a reminder to do your monthly check. Stand in front of the mirror and see if you can find any changes in skin, if your breasts remain symmetrical and if there are any changes in size or shape. If you do it at the same time every month, then you will get to know what’s normal for you.”

A breast exam also includes running hands over the breasts clockwise around the nipple and making a note of any lumps. If you find a lump or change that’s new, go and see your healthcare professional/GP if it persists for a week or two. You can keep a diary that keeps track of your findings, so you always have a handy reference every month. It’s also important to go for routine annual mammography of your breasts from the age of 40 if you have no family history, mammography saves lives.

Skin Cancer

“For skin cancer, it is a question of becoming familiar with your own body and knowing if you fall into a high-risk category,” explains du Toit. “Patients who had extreme sun exposure when they were young, have red/blond hair and light skin, or if they have a family history of skin cancer or atypical nevi, fall into the latter category. Every month or two, look at your body from top to toe, especially your back as 50% of melanoma appear on the front or the back.  It’s important to also check the back of your legs/scalp/ears. Ask your partner to check the hard to reach spots.”

Follow the ABCDE Rule – Asymmetrical border, Bigger than normal, change in colour/bleeding/crusting, Diameter bigger than 6mm, enlarging in size.

“You won’t know if your skin has changed unless you do this regularly so work with your partner or a family member to check the parts you can’t see,” she adds.

“Finally, with testicular cancers, being one of the less common cancers, some doctors don’t advocate self-exam.  However, look out for painless swelling of the testis or a lump in one of the testicles or change in shape, especially in younger men.  It’s important to know what feels normal for you.”

While there is no perfect way to pick up cancer, yet, one of the first best defences is your self-awareness. Take some time each month to follow these simple tests and empower yourself with the knowledge, which could change your life forever. As time well spent goes, this is it.