Mental Health & Wellbeing Matters: checking yourself for lumps and bumps

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A few words on the importance of checking yourself, and how to go about doing so. It might, genuinely just save your life.

To say my family’s has had its fair share of dealings with cancer would be a massive understatement. A few weeks back we buried my wife’s uncle, whose wrestle with liver cancer was so short there’d hardly been time to diagnose it. Pete was 62.

We lost my mum, to pancreatic cancer in 2016, aged 67. We lost my niece to a rare, and completely incurable, form of brain cancer (DIPG) the next year. Isla was seven; our family now runs a charity in her name, and we miss her every day. Several other family members are living with, or living with the effects of, various incarnations of the disease. That’s not the point of this piece, though.

The numbers that swirl around cancer are sobering, and sometimes so scary they’re easy to ignore. But to us they’ve become very personal. All the family we’ve lost were statistics to somebody, but not to us. Each one was a very real story, and the stories I want to tell today are those of my father and my sister-in-law. I often see them as two sides of a similar coin; two possible outcomes that sit either side of a modicum of self-awareness and responding to anomalies and lumps within your own body quickly. I don’t want to scare or shame anybody, I just want to relate the fact that in my experience, not knowing is scarier than finding out. More on that later.

I’m married to a nurse of 20-odd years experience, we field a lot of medical questions from various friends and relatives. I remember vividly the day my father came over to Jackie and asked if she would have a look at a mole on his stomach. It was obviously raised, and was also scabbed from bleeding. I can still hear him ask: “Do you think I should get this looked at, Jac?”

Worse, I can still see the look of concern, and well-contained frustration, on her face – and hear telling him “Yes! Straight away… How long has it been like that?

I can tell when Jac is concerned, and I could tell straight away that was the case.

Everything else about that conversation is now lost to me, so I can’t remember how long he’d been living with the skin cancer that would eventually kill him. Long enough for the melanoma to have spread to his lymph nodes and on around his body, I guess. He lived about another year, and died a few days after Christmas in 2012, aged 65.

During the lockdown of 2020, I remember being with Jac while she talked to her sister, who was sitting in a car park outside of a hospital. She was telling us via video call that the lump she’d found on her breast was cancerous and she’d chosen to have a full mastectomy. Jac couldn’t hug her, and there were lots of tears… but also plenty of hope.

She’d noticed the lump only weeks before, in the shower, and felt it was better safe than sorry to see the Doctor about it immediately. Two years, many tests, one mastectomy and a breast reconstruction later, Laura is in remission. It’s been a horrible, bumpy ride, but the hope persists.

All this to say: don’t ignore small problems.

Persistent stomach issues, coughs that won’t go away and rapid weight loss are other prime examples – and, for god’s sake, don’t be embarrassed to check yourself for lumps and bumps, nor for paying close attention to changes in moles and other marks on your body.

I won’t go into the technicalities of that now; details of how to check for breast cancer can be found here , and men can visit to find a full guide to checking their testicles. NHS Direct is a massive fountain of knowledge.

I know it’s scary, I’ve been there. I found a lump on my own testicles when I was around 25. It was about the scariest week of my life; being checked, manhandled prodded and scanned by various consultants, doctors and nurses after being told to go straight to A&E by my Doctor.

I used to joke that ‘half of my home town had seen my balls’ by the time they decided a kink in one of the tubes to my testicle had caused an infection and swelling, and prescribed some antibiotics. I’ve never regretted going straight to the Doc’s, though. Even if I had, it’s got to be better than regretting not going sooner.

I promise you my Dad would tell you that if he were here.

Please check. And if you’re in doubt. Talk to a doctor straight away. You all take care. Thank you for reading.

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