Smiling face with a heart and check mark

Step 1: Know Your Great

One of the best ways for you to detect cancer early is to create a benchmark of what is normal for you. We say “Know Your Great.” Paying attention to how you feel when you’re at your best will help you notice persistent, subtle changes in your overall health. The word persistent is important. After all, without something to compare to, you might not realize something has changed and is different.

When it comes to your health, you’re the expert.

Cancer reveals itself in different ways. To be able to recognize changes in your own body, it’s important to know how you feel when you feel great or what is normal for you. Start by becoming aware of your normal energy level, sleep patterns, pain, weight, bathroom habits and motor control—as well as what your skin looks like. Being aware and benchmarking your health will help you recognize changes that may be signs of cancer.

“The best advice I have is to listen to your body. It will tell you when something is wrong. Know what healthy is supposed to feel like, so that you can tell when it’s abnormal.”

Kenneth Allen diagnosed with olfactory nerve cancer at 34 

Determine What’s Normal for You

Ask Yourself These Questions

  • Typical energy level: Do you have normal energy? Are you fatigued?
  • Sleep pattern: What is your regular routine? Do you generally need five hours of sleep, six, eight, ten? When you wake in the morning, are you rested and ready to take on the day?
  • Weight: Many people note weight fluctuations, but do you generally know why your weight has changed? Do you pay attention if you have unexplained weight loss? How’s your appetite?
  • Motor control and reflexes: Are you always steady on your feet? (This is not about athletic ability, but functional balance.)
  • Bowel habits: How ‘regular’ are you? Do you look at your poop? Has anything changed? Do you ever see blood in your stools?
  • Skin: Have you noted where you have freckles and moles? Do you pay attention to whether or not they have changed over time? Do they itch? Are they raised?
  • Lumps and bumps: Do you have any on your body? Were they always there? Have they changed or grown? Do you check on them?
  • Pain and discomfort levels: Are you experiencing persistent and unexplained pain or discomfort? How long has it lasted?

For additional questions and a template to track your health changes, visit the Health Tracker page.

Do Regular Self-Exams

Part of Knowing Your Great is performing regular self-exams. Create a baseline of what is normal for you. When you consistently perform self-exams, you’ll know what is normal for you and you’ll be the first to recognize changes.

  • If you see something new, changing, or unusual about your skin, lips, mouth, throat, or finger and toenails make an appointment to see your doctor or a dermatologist.
  • Take a photo of any mark with a pen tip or a ruler next to it to track its size and appearance.

What to Look For

  • Growths: A growth may be suspicious if it increases in size and appears pearly, transparent, multi-colored, tan, brown, or black.
  • Moles: If you see changes in a birthmark or brown spot, it might be a red flag. Look for increases in size, thickness, changes in color or texture, or if it is bigger than a pencil eraser.
  • Sores: Note sores that continue to hurt, itch, scab, crust, or bleed. If you have an open sore that does not heal within three weeks, make an appointment to see a doctor.
  • Cracked or discolored finger or toenails: Cracked or discolored finger or toenails could be a sign that something is wrong.

What to Examine

  • Face: When it comes to your face, pay special attention to your nose, lips, mouth, and ears.
  • Scalp: Use a blow dryer and a mirror to thoroughly inspect your scalp. If you have someone to help you, even better!
  • Hands: Inspect your palms and the backs of hands, plus, between your fingers and under the fingernails. Also examine your wrists and both the front and back of your forearms.
  • Arms: Stand in front of a full-length mirror and scan all sides of your upper arms. Then raise your arms to check out your underarms.
  • Torso (chest, back, abdomen): Study your neck, chest, back, abdomen, and torso. If need be, lift your breasts to view the undersides.
  • Upper back: Facing away from a full-length mirror, use a hand mirror to inspect the back of your neck, shoulders, upper back and any part of the back of your upper arms you could not view when examining your arms.
  • Lower back. Scan your lower back, buttocks, and the back of your legs using a full- length mirror and a hand mirror.
  • Legs: Sit down and prop a leg on a stool. Use a hand mirror to examine your genitals. Then check the front and sides of both legs, thigh to shin.
  • Feet: Examine your ankles and feet, including soles, toes and unpolished toenails.

Step 1: Stand in front of a mirror with shoulders straight and arms on your hips. Look for:

  • The usual size, shape, and color of your breasts
  • Evenly shaped breasts

If you see any of the following changes, share them with a doctor:

  • An inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out) or a nipple that has changed position
  • Swelling, rash, redness, or soreness
  • Skin that is dimpled, puckered, or bulging

Step 2: Raise your arms and look for any of the changes you looked for in Step 1.

Step 3: Looking down (and also using the mirror), look for any signs of a milky, watery fluid or blood coming out of either nipple.

Step 4: Lie down. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together, and create a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.

Use your left hand to feel the entire right breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage. Then repeat, using your right hand on your left breast.

To make sure you examine the whole breast, create a pattern. You can begin at the nipple and move outward or you can move in rows vertically – whatever is most comfortable.

Make sure you feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts.

  • Use light pressure for the skin and tissue just beneath.
  • Use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts.
  • Use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.

Step 5: Stand or sit and repeat the process. Examine your breast, using the same hand movements described in Step 4.

The best time for you to examine your testicles is during or after a bath or shower, when the skin of the scrotum is relaxed.

Step 1: Hold your penis out of the way and examine each testicle separately.

Step 2: Holding one testicle, use your thumb and forefingers of each hand to gently roll it between your fingers.

Step 3: See a doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Hard lumps
  • Smooth or rounded bumps
  • Changes in size or consistency
  • Pain

You should not feel any pain when performing the self-exam. Be aware of any dull soreness or heaviness.

Get Regular Screenings

Screenings are an important part of Step 1. While a majority of cancer is diagnosed only after you notice symptoms, screenings can detect cancer when it is asymptomatic and smaller. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends screenings for breast, colon and cervical cancers, and lung cancer for people at high risk. Talk with your healthcare provider about which screenings you should have and when you should have them.

Follow These Quick Tips

  • Make notes or use your calendar app to log how you feel each day. You can also track your energy, pain level, stomach issues, possible injuries, and start dates of a flu or cold.
  • Take a picture of each mole or skin change with a pencil tip or ruler next to it for a size and shape point of reference. Record the date, and then use it as the basis of comparison two weeks later — has it changed in any way?
  • Build awareness of your normal health. Have annual physicals with your doctor to benchmark your health, and do regular skin, breast and testicular self-exams. Take a moment in the morning or at night to pause and pay attention to your physical self. Do a body scan, head to toe, and reflect on how everything feels.