Not that you shouldn’t see your doctor for a physical once a year, but it pays to monitor your own health between visits to your health care practitioner. No one knows your body as well as you do. By doing regular self-exams, you can pick up changes that could save your life. Spend a few minutes each month, doing these 5 self-exams and let your doctor know if you find anything suspicious.
A Skin Exam
Skin cancer is on the rise. No one knows why skin cancer cases are increasing. One thought is that sunscreens don’t provide as much protection against skin cancer as previously thought. Plus, people often don’t apply enough sunscreen to get the full benefits.
The most common form of skin cancer is called basal cell carcinoma. This form of cancer usually arises on parts of your body exposed to sunlight, especially the face, neck, and chest. These skin cancers rarely move beyond the skin. Another form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma can move into deeper tissues but usually doesn’t.
The most concerning form of skin cancer is malignant melanoma, a skin cancer that sometimes arises from a pre-existing mole. Melanomas can also pop up spontaneously on a mole-free area. Unlike the most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma has the ability to grow into deeper tissues and move to other parts of your body. That’s why it’s important to examine your moles and do a skin check monthly to look for suspicious lesions or changes in a pre-existing mole. When examining a mole or other skin area, these “red flag” changes should send you running to your doctor:
A- Asymmetry. One side looks different than the other.
B- Borders. Borders aren’t smooth and appear irregular.
C- Color. A mole or skin lesion is changing color or looks very dark or multi-colored.
D- Diameter. Skin lesions or moles are larger than the eraser of a pencil.
E- Evolving. A mole or skin lesion is growing or changing in size.
Don’t be content to just inspect your skin. Use a flashlight to look at your scalp. Then examine your fingernails and toenails for dark streaks or areas of deep pigmentation. Don’t forget to look between your fingers and toes and around your genitals. Melanomas can show up in all of these spots.
Even if you do a self-check at home, see your doctor for a yearly skin exam, preferably a dermatologist, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun, have a lot of moles or have had skin cancer in the past. You can even download a “body map” online to track your moles and follow them over time.
These days, less focus is placed on self-breast exams due to the availability of mammography. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a monthly breast exam. Mammography can miss cancers, especially in women with dense breast tissue. Self-breast exam is a screening tool you should use as a back-up. Don’t forget most women don’t get their first mammogram until age 40. Breast cancers can occur in the 20s and 30s and the number of breast cancer showing up in younger women is on the rise.
All women should do a monthly self-breast exam beginning at age 20. This is the best way to become familiar with how your breasts normally feel. Don’t depend exclusively on mammography to pick up cancers, make a breast exam part of your monthly routine.
“Examine” Your Family History
Genetics aren’t destiny, but certain genes put you at higher risk for health problems. Do a little research and create a medical “family tree,” showing what each member of your family died of and what medical problems your relatives have. If they had a health problem such as heart disease or high blood pressure diagnosed before the age of 60, you may be at higher risk for that health problem too. At least know the medical family history of your closest relatives including brothers, sisters, mom, dad, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Once you know what you’re at higher risk for, you can get the appropriate testing early on and make dietary and lifestyle changes to help lower your risk. Knowledge is power when it comes to staying healthy.
Do a Blood Pressure Check
One out of three people has blood pressure that’s too high and the risk for hypertension goes up with age. When you check your blood pressure at home one or more times a month using a home monitoring device, it will help you detect hypertension at its earliest stages. If you’re a “nervous Nelly” at the doctor’s office, blood pressures you measure at home may be a more accurate reflection of what your blood pressure is when you’re not stressed. If you want a high tech way to do it, invest in a wrist blood pressure monitor that tracks and records your blood pressure readings. However you do it, keep an eye on your blood pressure.
Scrutinize Your Diet
Few things impact your health more than what you eat. Eating a diet of mostly whole foods and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables offers protection against a variety of chronic health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer. It’s easy to get off track with your diet. Keep a food journal for a few days every month to get a more realistic idea of what you’re putting in your mouth. If you’ve slacked off with your diet, see what changes you need to make to eat healthier.
The Bottom Line?
Know your body and be aware of changes. Doing regular self-exams and health checks along with knowing your family history will help you be more proactive about your health. Combine that with regular exercise and you’ll be taking the steps necessary to maximize your health and longevity.
American Cancer Society. “Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection”
Skin Cancer Foundation. “Step- by-Step Self-Examination”
American Cancer Society. “Breast Awareness and Self-Exam”
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