If you’re an adult woman who isn’t doing a monthly breast self-exam, you may want to start. Breast self-exams help you to familiarize yourself with the health of your breasts over time and allow you to notice lumps, thickening tissues, or any other changes that can happen. Additionally, regular clinical breast exams at your doctor’s office give your doctor the opportunity to catch things you may not notice during your self-exams. Women older than 40 are also encouraged to have regular mammograms to catch breast lumps long before you can feel them. When combined, breast self-exams and mammograms help to stop breast cancer in time to treat it.
How to do a Breast Self-Exam
Don’t feel shy about doing a breast exam on yourself. You know your body better than anyone else. Being aware of what’s happening will empower you to make healthy decisions. It’s best to do a breast self-exam soon after a menstrual period, when your breasts aren’t undergoing changes due to hormones. Besides examining yourself in the mirror, you should do a standing (shower) self-exam and an exam lying down. This will give you familiarity with your breasts in both positions.
In Front of the Mirror
Raise your arms high above your head to do a visual inspection of your breasts in front of a mirror. Check your breasts for dimpling of the skin (it will look like an orange peel), swelling, changes in contour, or changes in your nipple. Repeat the inspection again after placing your hands on your hips and flexing your chest muscles.
In the Shower
While you’re lathering up in the shower, take a minute to do a breast self-exam. With soapy fingers, move in a circular pattern from the outside of your breast to the center to check for lumps, knots, or any thickened parts of your breast. Be sure to check your underarm and collarbone areas as well as the entire breast. Familiarity is key here. Breasts will normally have some lumps — they’re made up of fatty tissues, milk ducts, and blood vessels. When done monthly, you’ll be able to check for new lumps or unusual tissues.
Lying down allows you to evenly check the tissues of the breast because your breast will spread across your ribs. With a pillow behind your right shoulder, raise your right arm above your head. With your left hand, move clockwise around your breast to check for any changes or lumps. Once you complete a rotation, move inwards about an inch and repeat until you’ve covered your entire breast. Make sure to check your nipple area for changes as well as your armpit. Squeeze your nipple to check for discharge. Repeat with your left breast.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
As you’re doing breast self-exams, look for (and talk to your doctor about) the following symptoms:
- Thick tissue or lumps the size of a pea or larger in your breast or underarm
- Nipple discharge, tenderness, or an inverted nipple
- Pitting or ridges in the skin on your breast
- Unusual changes in the shape and size of your breast
- Changes in the way your breast looks or feels
Clinical Breast Exams
At your annual physical exam with your family doctor or gynecologist, you’ll likely get a clinical breast exam. This means your doctor will check your breasts, much like you do with self-examination. It’s common for your healthcare provider to ask you to raise your arms above your head while they use their finger pads to check for rashes, dimpling, lumps, large differences between your breasts, or any other unusual symptoms. Clinicians have experience recognizing signs or symptoms you may miss in your self-exam. Because of this you’ll want to report any suspicious lumps to your doctor, and make sure you get your yearly physical exam.
When you turn age 40, it’s time for you to start talking to your doctor about the risks and benefits of mammogram screenings on an annual basis. Mammograms are a safe and effective way to screen for breast cancer. Mammogram screenings are x-rays of your breasts. During a mammogram, your breasts are placed between two plates that flatten your breast and allow the x-ray to better see all of the tissue. A mammogram can detect breast cancer, lumps, and even smaller lumps like calcifications. Calcifications are small mineral deposits that accumulate in the breast. A lump may be a cyst (a fluid-filled sac) that feels like a grape, or they can be a solid mass that feels more like a dried bean. Both calcifications and lumps can be linked to cancer, so detecting them early is important. Small lumps can be caught by a mammogram long before they can be felt in an examination, so regular screenings are important.
What happens when you find a lump?
If you find a lump during a routine breast exam, call your doctor, and try not to panic. Eight out of 10 lumps are benign, which means they are not cancer. Your doctor will examine the lump and order additional testing as needed. This testing may include mammograms, ultrasounds, or a biopsy (removing part of the lump) to ensure cancer is not present.
Monthly breast self-exams are your first line of defense against breast cancer. When you combine them with regular breast exams at your doctor’s office and mammograms, you increase your chances of catching breast cancer while it’s still in the beginning stages and easy to treat. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about how regular breast exams can benefit you.