The coronavirus pandemic has not only affected many activities we enjoy, but also important tasks like doctor visits. Nonessential trips to see our physicians are limited at this time, so we’re tasked with being our own health surveyors ― at least more vigilantly than we already are on a normal basis.
This includes monitoring your body for any changes. There are a number of self-exams that can be conducted from your bed, shower or wherever you please to make sure nothing alarming is going on.
Below, doctors share tips for conducting some self-exams at home, what to be on the lookout for when doing them, and when it’s best to consult your physician.
Perform an at-home breast self-exam
You should be doing this regardless of a pandemic, but it’s especially important now without gynecological or physical exams.
There are a number of things you should look out for when doing a self-exam on your breasts, said Tari A. King, chief of breast surgery at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and Anne E. Dyson professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
“The key is to be familiar with what your breasts feel like ― no two women’s breasts are the same,” she said. “When I encourage my patients to do self-breast exams, it’s not to look for something abnormal, it’s to know what your breasts feel like, so if there is a change, you would recognize that something is different.”
As a first step, King suggested looking at yourself in the mirror, unclothed, and checking to see if your breasts look symmetrical. She then suggested raising your arms above your head to look for any changes in the breast such as dimpling of the skin or pulling of the breast in one direction. King also added that it’s important to look at yourself from the side to check for any changes in the contour or appearance of the skin or nipple.
Then you should start feeling your breast for changes, Start by having one hand elevated, behind your head, and then use the other hand to start examining the breast.
“Start in the middle, where the nipple is, feeling for any changes directly beneath the nipple. Then, work outward in a spiral pattern,” King said. Then move onto the other breast.
She added that breast tissue can go all the way up to the clavicle, into the underarm area, and along the side of the chest wall toward your back, so it’s important to check those areas too.
It’s best to use a moderate amount of pressure when conducting the exam and make sure you’re doing it around the same time every month, which will help you avoid any changes that may come with a menstrual cycle.
Finally, “when it comes to doing a breast exam, you want to do it where you’re comfortable. Some women like to do it in the shower as part of their bathing ritual, and some women prefer to be lying on their back in bed,” King said.
If you discover a few lumps, don’t immediately panic. Sometimes this is natural.
“The challenge with self-breast exams is that many have lumpy breasts, which creates a lot of anxiety around not knowing what’s normal,” King said. Dense breast tissue and fibroids ― benign lumps ― often cause people to feel extremely worried.
However, if you think you’re feeling a lump or bump that’s new or if you’re just generally concerned, it doesn’t hurt to check in with a professional.
“If you are confident that you are feeling something abnormal, there is no reason to delay calling your doctor and going in to have it looked at. If you are not sure, then check the same area again a couple of days later to see if you still feel the same thing,” King said.
Check your skin for moles, sores and rashes
Skin exams are also important to maintain. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to effectively check for abnormalities at home.
“For a skin self-exam, you don’t need anything special, just a full-length mirror, good lighting and a little hand mirror,” said Mary Ann D. Bentz, a board-certified dermatologist at Dermatology Associates of Southeastern Connecticut.
To conduct a skin self-exam, Bentz recommended undressing and looking at yourself in a full-length mirror — front and back, under your arms, the entirety of your body — at least once a month. She added that sitting down with a hand mirror allows you to view harder-to-see areas of the body like the back of your legs, your elbows and your bottom.
See a new mole or a different-looking spot? That’s when you should give your physician a heads up.
“You want to look for sores that don’t heal, that can be a sign of basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer,” she said. “Pimples and bug bites should move, they shouldn’t be in the same place week after week. You also want to look for new moles and moles that are changing colors. Those can be signs of dangerous melanomas.”
If you do see something questionable, Bentz suggested calling or finding a dermatologist to schedule a virtual visit. Suspicious bumps, rashes and moles can be shown to a doctor easily via video or photos.
Bentz also added that the Skin Cancer Foundation offers patient-oriented information and skin cancer visuals to help you decipher what you’re looking at on your own skin.
“It’s really important to look at your skin. It’s pretty simple, takes less than five minutes and could save your life,” Bentz said.
Conduct a testicular self-exam
Unlike most cancers, testicular cancer is most prevalent in younger individuals, with the average age of diagnosis being around age 33. Checking for testicular cancer is an easy process that can quickly be done from home during social distancing.
“Testicular self-exams are important because the testicles are very exposed on the outside of the body. We recommend that all young males do testicular self-exams,” said J. Ryan Mark, an assistant professor and urology physician at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
He added that as soon as young men hit puberty, they should be conducting testicular self-exams on a monthly basis until at least their 40s.
“Once a month is the recommended frequency, usually in the shower. In the presence of warmth, the testicles are going to be more relaxed and easier to examine,” Mark said.
To do this, hold the area above the testicle so that the testicle doesn’t move around. Then slide your fingers over the surface of the testicles, which Mark said “should feel like a grape ― a very smooth lining and a little bit squishy.”
Behind the testicle is the epididymis, which is sometimes a little bit tender to examine, but it should be squishy as well, Mark added.
“Depending on the individual, you can have cysts there, which you’ll feel, and those will tend to be squishy,” he said. “But primarily what you’re worried about is a very hard mass in the testicle.”
These masses are likely small ― people generally only feel them when they’re around 1 to 1.5 centimeters. Do your exams regularly and note if anything changes or is out of the ordinary.
“If you feel anything unusual, you should see a urologist,” Mark said.
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