Taking the Mystery out of self-Exams

When it comes to detection of cancer, high cholesterol and other
health conditions, prevention is key. But sometimes fear overrides
good intentions. Relax: Getting checked out for health problems
isn’t as scary as you might think.
Self-Breast Exams

When I was 23, I found a lump in my breast. I found it quite by accident, not during a self-exam. I rolled onto my stomach one day and noticed a spot on the outer edge of my left breast was really sore. I didn’t see any bruises, and I couldn’t remember bumping into anything. When I put my hand on the point that hurt, I felt the lump.

I went to a doctor – the same man who diagnosed my mother with breast cancer years ago – and had two ultrasounds and one mammogram. When the doctor asked me how long the lump had been there, I told him I didn’t know. I didn’t do self-exams. I only found the lump when it started to hurt.

It turned out to be a tricky type of cyst. It was hard to find and hard to see. But that little cyst taught me it’s never too early to start doing self-exams, especially for women like me who have breast cancer in their families.

The best time to do a self breast exam is just after the end of your period, said a physician’s assistant at Planned Parenthood in Gilroy. Breasts aren’t as tender around that time, and they will be less bumpy than at any other time in the menstrual cycle.

Women should do an exam every month so they are familiar with the landscape of their breast tissue, making it easier to detect something different.

It’s best to do the exam lying down. Lay your left hand above your head and use your right-hand index and middle finger to feel up and down your breast in vertical strips. Start at the center of your breast bone, go all the way up to your collar bone and down to the crease under your breast.

When you get near the arm pit, use all four fingers. Expect this area to be more bumpy than the rest of your breast. Switch hands and do the same to your right breast.

I had the physician’s assistant at Planned Parenthood do the exam on me first, and then she had me do it. Even after all my tests two years ago, I was still intimidated by all the bumps I felt. That’s why it’s important to do self exams regularly – eventually, you’ll know what bumps are normal and will be able to recognize when something changes.

Go to a doctor if you feel something hard rather than soft and squishy, or if you feel something that feels as if it’s stuck to your skin or breast tissue, the assistant said. Also, look at your breasts for any changes in appearance, such as a visible lump or pucker, or if you notice a change in the shape of your breasts.

For more information, visit the American Cancer Society Web site at www.cancer.org.

Self-Testicle Exams

By Kelly Savio, Staff Writer

Though we tried to get one of our male staff writers to learn how to do a self-testicle exam, we were unsuccessful. The physician’s assistant at Planned Parenthood wasn’t surprised to hear about the hesitance, but she stressed the importance of the exams.

Testicles should be very smooth and squishy. There may be a small patch of bumps or roughness on the rear side of a testicle where the tubes that carry semen are attached.

Men should roll their testicles in their fingers or cup each one in the front part of their hand and make the same motion as tapping their fingers, the assistant said. They should see a doctor if they feel a bump or anything rough or hard.

For more information, visit the Lance Armstrong Foundation Web site at www.livestrong.org.

Cholesterol Screening

By Christine Tognetti, Staff Writer

In July, I was going about my life like an average 23-year-old. I worked out three or four days a week and ate mostly balanced meals, with the occasional bag of M&M’s or scoop of ice cream thrown in for good measure. I had no reason to think I wasn’t healthy.

One day, the local blood donation center held a blood drive. A coworker and I decided we wanted to give. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from the blood center saying that after they ran a cholesterol screening on my blood, my cholesterol score was 268. The average score is below 200.

Immediately I started to panic. I knew high cholesterol ran in my family, but I always assumed it was something I’d deal with 30 years from now, when I was closer to my parents’ age. What was just as frustrating is that my coworker, who loved fast food and ate at restaurants all the time, had a score of 140.

After freaking out a bit more about the possibility of having a stroke at age 23, I made an appointment with my doctor to have my cholesterol screened again. I was instructed to begin fasting at midnight the evening before the screening. The test was simple, just my doctor drawing a tube of blood.

About a week later I received my test results, which once again proved my cholesterol score was extremely high.

Cholesterol is made up of two components. LDL, known as “bad” cholesterol, can slowly cause buildup in the inner walls of the arteries that circulate blood to the heart and brain. If the problem goes untreated, it can lead to heart attack or stroke, according to the American Heart Association. HDL, known as “good” cholesterol, protects the heart.

Another component to cholesterol is triglycerides, a form of fat. They come from foods high in saturated fat, and they also are produced in the body. Triglycerides can raise a person’s LDL level. Based on the breakdown of my score of 268, which was 168 LDL and 100 HDL, it was clear that I needed to make some changes to keep my arteries healthy.

My doctor immediately wanted to put me on a medication that would lower the score, but at 23 years old, I felt it was a little early to start pumping my liver full of pills. Instead of going on the medicine, I made a promise to cut all cholesterol out of my diet, which meant no animal products and dairy. I also vowed to up my cardiovascular workouts from August to January, then retest my blood.

Although I may be eating healthier and exercising more than most people my age, my doctor said that if my high cholesterol is hereditary, no diet or exercise would help. Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited condition of very high cholesterol that runs in families. Someone who has diabetes in his or her family is more prone to producing higher levels of triglycerides, which will cause cholesterol levels to rise no matter what.

I won’t know the fate of my cholesterol until I retest in two months, but my high score should be a warning to anyone my age who feels they’re healthy just because they’re young.

For more information, visit the American Heart Association Web site at www.americanheart.org.

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