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The Benefits and Risks of Breast Self-Exams

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a good time to take stock of the strides that are being made in treating breast cancer, but also to remind us of the steps every woman can take to protect herself. A regular breast exam is a good first step.

When you give yourself a breast exam you are using your eyes and hands to familiarize yourself with the way your breasts look and feel. Through regular exams you will come to know the specifics of your particular breasts: the normal consistency of the exterior and the underlying tissues, as well as the feel of the skin and the nipples. When you become familiar with the normal feeling of your breasts through regular exams, it will make it easier to spot subtle changes.

Previously, the emphasis in breast exams was in the possibility of finding a lump. However, it is not just a breast lump that can be significant. There are subtle changes that should prompt you to see your doctor. Without the advantage of familiarity that you will have from frequent breast exams, you might not notice some of these changes, such as an area of thickening in your upper breast next to your arm, or skin that feels rashy or hot to the touch. The importance of doing a regular breast exam is that it gives you a deeper understanding of your own body that can attune you to subtle but significant changes.

That doesn’t mean that doing regular breast exams does not carry some risks. Most of the lumps or changes that a woman finds in her breasts are not cancerous, but the fear when you do find something can make you very anxious. You may end up enduring days of unnecessary worry while you wait for test results.

Another risk of doing breast exams is that you will find a suspicious lump that necessitates having an invasive procedure, such as a core needle biopsy to determine the cause of the lump. When lumps turn out to be noncancerous, you may feel as if you’ve gone through the procedure unnecessarily.

Additionally, the American Cancer Society has determined that breast exams on their own do not reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer and they now consider breast exams to be optional. However, the benefit of being familiar with the unique characteristics of your own breasts can help increase your chances of symptoms of cancer or other conditions earlier rather than later.

If you are going to do regular breast exams you should keep a few things in mind.

  • Do your exam a few days after the end of your period. This is usually the time when your breasts are the least tender.
  • If you do not have a period, do your exams regularly on a certain day of the month.
  • Keep a notebook handy to track any changes you notice in your breasts. You may notice some changes that occur regularly with your menstrual cycle, such as tenderness, etc.

Check with your AOA doctor to make sure you are doing the exam correctly.

The Benefits and Risks of Breast Self-Exams

The first step is to visually assess your breasts. Stand without a shirt or bra in front of a mirror with your arms at your sides.

  • Face forward and look for changes in shape, size, skin texture or symmetry.
  • Look at your nipples and notice if they are inverted.
  • Examine your breasts while you lift your hands over your head and press your palms together.
  • Lift your breasts to see if ridges along the bottom are symmetrical.

The next step is to manually check your breasts. You can do this either lying down or in the shower. If you lie down, lie flat on your back. Your breasts will flatten out, making them thinner and easier to feel. If you choose the shower, lather up so that your hand glides smoothly over your skin and enables you to feel more.

  • Place your right hand behind your head and examine your right breast with your left hand and then switch sides.
  • Use the pads, not the tips of your three middle fingers.
  • Use different pressure levels to enable you to feel the different depths of your breasts: light, medium and deep. If you are uncertain about how much pressure to apply, ask your AOA healthcare provider to help guide you.
  • Then move your fingers methodically around your breast starting at your collarbone and moving toward the nipple.
  • Examine your nipples for any discharge.
  • Don’t rush. Be mindful and thorough.

Contact your AOA physician if you notice:

  • A hard lump near your underarm
  • If your breasts have changed shape or texture, such as having gotten thicker or more prominent on one side than the other.
  • If your nipple has become inverted or you notice any discharge
  • If you see or feel dimples, puckers or ridges
  • If you have a rash, swelling, or feel soreness, redness or heat.

While it is important to become familiar with what is normal for your breasts, you should combine doing breast self exams with regular visits with your AOA physician for a clinical breast exam and an annual mammogram. Catching cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages is the best way to prevent its spread.

Learn more about breast self exams: