Breast self-exam, or regularly examining your breasts on your own, can be an important way to find a breast cancer early, when it’s more likely to be treated successfully. Not every cancer can be found this way, but it is a critical step you can and should take for yourself.
Over the years, there has been some debate over just how valuable breast self-examination is in detecting breast cancer early and increasing the likelihood of survival. For example, a 2008 study of nearly 400,000 women in Russia and China reported that breast self-exam does not reduce breast cancer mortality and may even cause harm by prompting unnecessary biopsies (removal and examination of suspicious tissue). Because of the ongoing uncertainty raised by this and other studies, the American Cancer Society no longer recommends breast self-exam as a screening tool for women with an average risk of breast cancer.
Breastcancer.org still believes that breast self-examination is a useful and important screening tool, especially when used in combination with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammography, and ultrasound. Some breast cancers are only found by physical examination, not by mammography. We therefore recommend that all women routinely perform breast self-exams as part of their overall breast cancer screening strategy.
5 breast self-exam tips
- Make it routine. The more you examine your breasts, the more you will learn about them and the easier it will become for you to tell if something has changed. Try to get in the habit of doing a breast self-examination once a month to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally look and feel. Examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day that’s easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.
- Get to know your breasts’ different “neighborhoods.” The upper, outer area — near your armpit — tends to have the most prominent lumps and bumps. The lower half of your breast can feel like a sandy or pebbly beach. The area under the nipple can feel like a collection of large grains. Another part might feel like a lumpy bowl of oatmeal.
- Start a journal where you record the findings of your breast self-exams. This can be like a small map of your breasts, with notes about where you feel lumps or irregularities. Especially in the beginning, this may help you remember, from month to month, what is “normal” for your breasts. It is not unusual for lumps to appear at certain times of the month, but then disappear, as your body changes with the menstrual cycle (if you are still menstruating).
- Don’t panic if you think you feel a lump. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time, and most breast lumps turn out to be benign (not cancer).
- Tell your doctor if anything has changed, or if something stands out as different from the rest of the area (like a rock on a sandy beach), and it persists for several weeks. If a change is clearly new and worrisome, let your doctor know right away. But in most cases, only changes that last more than one full menstrual cycle or seem to get bigger or more prominent in some way, need your doctor’s attention.
How to do a breast self-exam: The five steps
|Step 1: Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips.
Here’s what you should look for:
If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention:
|Step 2: Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.
Step 3: While you’re at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
|Step 4: Next, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.
Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; 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: Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in step 4.|
Learn more about Breastcancer.org’s recommendations on when to begin annual mammograms. https://www.breastcancer.org
“The biggest misconception about mammography is that it picks up every breast cancer. In fact, mammography misses at least 10% of breast cancer. So if you feel a lump that doesn’t show up on a mammogram, bring it to your doctor’s attention. Get it evaluated.”
— Susan Greenstein Orel, M.D.