Self-Exams for Cancer and Other Diseases

How Getting Naked Can Save Your Life
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Some of the saddest health tragedies we hear about involve women who developed advanced breast cancer because they were too modest to perform self-exams or discuss "the girls" with the doctor. Many people are equally squeamish about analyzing the contents of the toilet or describing digestive issues. But there's no question that getting up close and personal with our bodies is the best way to spot a telltale change before it becomes a dangerous health threat. From our hair to our skin to the soles of our feet, what we see is in many cases what we get. Bottom line on the best way to stay healthy? Banish your embarrassment, let it all hang out, and take a closer look.

Head-to-Toe Self-Examination -- Naked

Thanks to a creative new campaign by the Melanoma Research Foundation, the phrase "Get Naked" has taken on a whole new meaning. Urging people to "get naked with a loved one and check your skin," the Get Naked campaign seeks to make checking moles, freckles, and other skin spots a social activity. And there's good reason to raise awareness of melanoma risk, with 80,000 people diagnosed with this deadliest of skin cancers each year. While 98 percent of those diagnosed with early-stage melanoma will survive, it's a much darker picture for those who don't find melanoma until it's spread beyond the skin to other organs. At that stage, the survival rate drops to just 16 percent. And of course melanoma is just one of several types of skin cancer. More than 3.5 million people will develop basal and squamous cell carcinoma this year.

There's really no other way to find skin cancer than to look, and look hard. And it's a fact that some areas of the body require a friend. There's no way you can see your scalp, your part, or the backs of your ears in the mirror, and you'll twist yourself in knots trying. Download a guide from the MRF, enlist a pal, parent, roommate, or romantic partner, and take turns looking closely. At the very least, you'll know each other a lot better when you're done.

Check on Your Manhood to Capture Red Flags

"If you're so sure you got balls, when was the last time you checked them?" That's a direct question from Samuel L. Jackson, part of a campaign called One for the Boys aimed at raising men's awareness about cancer, particularly prostate and testicular cancer. The message: 30 percent more men die of cancer than women. Why? Because men don't want to talk about their bodies and don't get checked early enough. The campaign includes amusing cartoon images of guys looking down their pants and urges men to familiarize themselves with signs of testicular, prostate, and male breast cancer and pay attention to signs and symptoms. Says Jackson, "So boys, don't be dumb. If you've really got balls, show them to your doctor." You can also check your balls yourself. Here's how: Look for lumps, swelling, or changes in size and shape. Don't just cup the boys; reach around the back of the scrotum and roll testicles to the sides using fingers and thumb.

Spot a Warning Sign by Peering in the Toilet

Did you know that there are toilets in Germany equipped with a "poop shelf" to allow you to look at your feces before you flush? While that might sound odd, it's actually an excellent tool to help you keep a watch on your health. Barring a specially designed toilet, though, you can still take a good look at what comes out for signs of problems. Blood, the most obvious sign and the easiest to spot, can indicate hemorrhoids, but if it persists it's also a signal to talk to your doctor about a colonoscopy. An oily sheen and floaters can be a sign you're not digesting fats properly, while loose watery stools several times a day signal possible celiac disease. Green liquid stool is the primary sign of C. diff infection, which is becoming more common and can follow a course of antibiotics. C. diff can be deadly, so seeing green is something to bring to the doctor's attention right away.

Check the Rear View for Telltale Signs

Nothing's harder to talk about than when something doesn't feel right "back there." But, as the Love Your Butt colon cancer awareness campaign makes plain, you've got to check your rear view regularly for signs of trouble. With slogans like, "I hope your day is as nice as your butt," the message is that everyone needs regular colon cancer checks from age 50 on, and sooner at the first sign of trouble.

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While colon cancer is particularly devious, because it can have few or no symptoms, there are other problems that can bring your attention to your backside. The most common cause of rectal pain is hemorrhoids, which are swollen, dilated veins that can press against or protrude from the anus. They can itch, they can hurt, or both. While many people fear anal cancer when they get hemorrhoids, the two conditions aren't related (though there have been rare cases where an anal tumor was misdiagnosed as a hemorrhoid). Unlike hemorrhoids, which will afflict two-thirds of adults in their lifetime, anal cancer is quite rare; just 4,000 people a year are diagnosed with it.

What are related are anal warts and anal cancer; HPV, the virus that causes genital and anal warts, is a risk factor for both cervical and anal cancer. HPV is extremely common; so common, in fact, that health agencies say most sexually active adults will develop it at some point in their lives, though they may not develop actual warts. Anal sex does, of course, make it much more likely that HPV would affect that region rather than your genitals. If you suspect anal warts (which feel exactly as you might imagine), get them checked out and removed. They can recur, so you have to be proactive about watching for their possible comeback.

Get Magnified for Signals

A simple dime-store magnifying mirror can help you spot a host of issues that may elude the naked eye. First off, of course, are all the skin changes associated with skin cancer, which are much easier to see with magnification. In fact, when trying to look at moles in faraway locations, such as behind your knees or on the soles of your feet, a magnifying mirror helps greatly. But that's not the only use. A magnifying mirror can aid a breast check, too, helping you spot small lumps in the nipple area or detect the "orange peel" skin indicative of inflammatory breast cancer. And ladies, when you're trying to look "down there" for any reason, a mirror is truly your best friend.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio