A breast self-exam, or regular examination of your breasts by yourself, is one of the best ways to detect breast cancer early. Early detection is one of the best ways to treat the cancer successfully. Although self-examination may not detect all breast cancers early, doctors believe that regular self-exams, in combination with other screening methods, may detect breast cancer early.
How Reliable Are Self-Exams?
Not all experts agree that self-exams are valuable, or even reliable. A 2008 study that consisted of 400,000 women in China and Russia reported that self-examination did not impact breast cancer survival rates in a meaningful way. A 2015 study found that self-exams may be superfluous, increasing the performance of unnecessary biopsies that resulted from women “detecting” their own lumps.
A self-exam isn’t the deciding factor that determines a breast cancer diagnosis, so the American Cancer Society recommends additional screening methods. However, a breast self-exam may be a beneficial screening tool for women at average risk of developing cancer. They can be helpful for detecting lumps or areas that feel different. If you think that something is irregular in your breast(s), then it’s best to speak to your primary care provider for additional screening.
How To Do A Breast Self-Exam
As a starting point, pick the same time each month to perform your breast self-exam. If you are are menstruating, perform the breast self-exam after your period. For women who no longer menstruate or experience irregular periods, it’s best to pick a day each month. Pick a day that’s easy to remember, for example, the first or last day of the month. Once you establish when you are going to do a breast self-exam, following the steps below.
In front of a mirror, stand up straight and place your hands on your hips. Notice if your breasts are their usual shape, size, and color. Breasts should not have visible distortion or swelling. If you see that a nipple changed position or notice redness, rash, swelling, dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin, bring it up with your doctor.
Raise your arms and look for the same changes. While you are looking in the mirror, look for signs of fluid emerging from one or both nipples. The fluid could be watery, milky, yellowish, or even bloody. Once again, if you see any sign of fluid coming out of one or both nipples, consult your doctor.
In addition to checking in front of a mirror, you can also perform a breast self-exam while lying down. Many health experts encourage this method of examination because the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall while lying down. Place a pillow under the right should and bring your right arm behind your head. Use the pads of your fingers on your left hand to gently cover the enter breast area and armpit. Apply light, medium, and then firm pressure, checking for lumps or bumps. Make sure to feel around the entire breast. You can also squeeze the nipple to check for discharge. Repeat on the left breast.
Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts for examination is when the skin is slippery and wet. You can do this step in the shower. Stand up straight and raise your right arm above your head. Using the index, middle and ring fingers on your left hand, press every part of the right breast with light, medium, and then firm pressure. Notice any difference, including lumps, thick spots, or other changes. Just like in Step 3, feel around the entire breast, including the areola and nipple, checking for discharge. Repeat these steps on your left breast.
If you happen to find a lump in your breast, the last thing you want to do is freak out. Many women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts, and they turn out to be benign. There are numerous causes of non-cancerous lumps, including hormonal changes or injury. If you notice a lump or other breast change that is worrisome, don’t hesitate to call your doctor. If you make an appointment, you may have to undergo ultrasound or mammogram for imaging.