self-exam involves checking your breasts for
lumps or changes. Many breast problems are first discovered by women
themselves, often by accident. Breast lumps can be noncancerous (benign) or
Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is most
common in women older than 50. Lumps or changes also may be signs of other breast conditions, such as
mastitis or a
Medical experts don't recommend regular breast self-examinations.1 Studies show that self-exams don't save women's lives and that they can lead to unneeded tests, such as biopsies. But some experts believe that women should know how their breasts look and feel (breast self-awareness) so any breast changes can be reported to a doctor.2
The best time to
examine your breasts is usually 1 week after your menstrual period starts,
when your breasts are least likely to be swollen or tender. Examining your breasts at other times in your menstrual cycle may make it hard to compare
results of one exam with another.
menstrual cycle is irregular, or if you have stopped
menstruating due to
menopause or the removal of your uterus (hysterectomy), do your examination on a day of the
month that's easy to remember.
If you are breast-feeding, try doing your breast exams after a feeding or after using a breast pump. The
breasts should have as little milk as possible, so the exam will be easier and more
A breast self-exam normally doesn't cause any discomfort. If your breasts are tender because your menstrual
period is about to begin, you may feel slight discomfort when you press on
To do a breast self-exam:
When in doubt about a particular lump, check your other
breast. If you find the same kind of lump in the same area on the other breast,
both breasts are probably normal.
In addition to examining your breasts while lying down, you
may also check them while in the shower. Soapy fingers slide easily across the
breast and may make it easier to feel changes. While standing in a
shower, place one arm over your head and lightly soap your breast on that side.
Then, using the flat surface of your fingers—not the fingertips—gently move
your hand over your breast, feeling
carefully for any lumps or thickened areas.
It takes practice to perform a
breast self-exam. Having
fibrocystic lumps also may make a breast self-exam difficult, because
lumps occur throughout the breast. Ask your doctor for tips that can help
you do it correctly.
After you know what your breasts normally look and feel like, any changes should be checked by a doctor. Changes may include:
Remember that most breast
problems or changes are caused by something other than cancer.
Even if you choose to do
breast self-exams, you still need regular
mammograms as well as regular breast checkups at your doctor's office or the mammogram center.
The risk of doing breast self-exams is that
you may find a breast change that makes you anxious and may lead to unnecessary tests (such as a
Also, a change you notice on a breast self-exam may be a kind of cancer that would never cause symptoms or threaten your life. But because no one can tell what kinds of cancer will cause problems, all cancers are treated. This means that you may end up having treatments (such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy) that you don't need. These treatments can cause harmful side effects.
Many experts believe that the harms of breast self-exams outweigh the benefits. Others consider it an option for women. Talk with your doctor about breast
The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational
programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families.
Staff at the toll-free number have information about services and activities
in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.
Breastcancer.org is a website dedicated to helping women
understand breast cancer and make good decisions about their treatment. This
site provides information from medical professionals on all aspects of
breast cancer, from screening and surgery to sex and intimacy. The site also offers links
to chat rooms, discussion boards, and "Ask the Expert" online conferences.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government
agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection,
and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer
and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses,
and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about
clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained
staff members available to answer questions and send free publications.
Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.
CitationsU.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm.American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). Breast cancer screening. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 122. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118: 372–382.
Other Works ConsultedAmerican Cancer Society (2009). Prevention and Early Detection: American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/ped_2_3X_ACS_Cancer_Detection_Guidelines_36.asp.U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm.
November 1, 2012
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Kirtly Jones, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
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