Many serious illnesses begin with what often seem like minor or localized symptoms, which if recognized early can alert the individual into taking action in time for the disorder to be cured or controlled. Most disorders can be recognized by self-examination if we take time to understand the normal workings of our bodies. If any of the following symptoms occur you should contact a doctor immediately: . rapid loss of weight – more than 4kg in 10 weeks without apparent cause – without pursuing a diet or engaging in vigorous physical activity. . A scab, sore or ulcer that does not clear up within three weeks. . a mole that begins to bleed, itch or change size, shape or colour. . severe headaches that develop for no reason. . Sudden attacks of vomiting without preceding nausea. . sudden fainting spells for no apparent reason. . Seeing haloes around lights and blurred vision, especially in dim light. . Increased difficulty in swallowing. . ‘smokers’ or other nagging cough that gets worse. . Blood in coughed-up sputum. . Constantly swollen ankles. . Bluish tinge to lips, inside of eyelids or nail-beds. . Extreme shortness of breath without having previously taken exercise. . Persistant abdominal pain. . Marked change in normal bowel habits. . Black and tarry faeces. . Rectal bleeding. . smoky, red, pink or cloudy-looking urine. . Discomfort when passing urine. . Unusual lumps or bumps in breasts or testicles. . Bleeding from nipple. . vaginal spotting between periods or after menopause.

It is important that these early warning signs are not ignored, even if they seem trivial, because many symptoms of common disorders can also suggest the possibility of cancer. Many cancers, however, including those of the skin, cervix, rectum and breast can be treated successfully if caught at an early stage. Some disorders may be detected as a result of regular physical examinations conducted by the individual himself or herself. Breast examination is one such example. For some years all women have been advised to examine their breasts monthly for abnormal thickening and lumps, which may indicate the presence, or the beginnings, of cancer. Breast examination takes about five minutes and should be carried out every month, preferably immediately after a woman’s monthly period.

Standing in front of a mirror and using the flat of the hand, feel the right and then the left breast for any lump or difference in texture. To carry this out effectively it is important to know how your breasts look and feel normally, and to be alert for any changes. Raise both arms and check for any swelling or dimpling in the skin of the breasts. Next lie down with a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. With the other hand gently feel the breast, working in circular movements from the outside to the centre. Squeeze the nipple to see if there is any discharge and repeat both procedures for the left breast.

Men are also advised to make regular monthly examinations to check their testicles for unusual lumps and any change in appearance.

Similarly lumps or swellings on the abdomen, particularly in the groin, should be reported to a doctor as a possible hernia.