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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Self Breast Examination

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Through the years there has been significant debate vis a vis how valuable breast self-examination is in detecting breast cancer early and increasing the likelihood of survival. The American Cancer Society stopped recommending breast self-exam as a screening tool for women with an average risk of breast cancer. Similarly, the Mayo Clinic acknowledges that "most medical organizations don't recommend routine breast self-exams as a part of breast cancer screening. That's because breast self-exams haven't been shown to be effective in detecting cancer or improving survival for women who have breast cancer."

While self breast exams are not a formal screening modality, there is great value in being familiar with the look and feel of your own breasts so you understand what is normal to you and are able to detect and promptly report changes.

While we are proponents breast self exams and knowing your body, it is important to know that BSEs should never take the place of breast cancer screenings.



Self Breast Exams can help to detect early signs of breast cancer. Self-examination of the breasts is an important part of health care and should be done on a regular basis. Self-breast exams are also known as being self-breast aware, breast self-awareness or BSE. During a Self Breast Examination, you will use your hands to feel for any changes in your breasts. It's important to do BSE regularly so that you get a sense of what your "normal" is as a baseline and then, over time, will be able to detect any changes. After all, you know your body best!


Breast Cancer Statistics

Cancer affects everyone differently but some facts remain true no matter who is affected by it. According to recent estimates from The American Cancer Society about 1 in 8 women (just over 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over their lifetime and about 265,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed each year among US women alone.


Although anyone can develop cancer regardless of age, race, or ethnicity; according to statistics from 2019 based on data from 2003-2017; African American women have higher rates of being diagnosed with later-stage breast cancers when compared to Caucasian women. Additionally, those same statistics show that Hispanic/Latina women were more likely than non-Hispanic white women to be diagnosed before they turn 40 (regardless of age, gender identity, race, or ethnicity) and need to become better informed about their bodies and help catch signs and symptoms early on.


Early Detection

Early detection increases the chances of successful treatment and recovery from breast cancer. By taking proactive measures like Self Breast Examinations and getting regular mammograms after age 40 (or earlier depending on risk factors) women can stay informed about their own health and be more aware of potential issues related to breast cancer before they become more serious or life-threatening conditions.


Early Stage breast cancer is curable. Late-stage breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer still has no cure, though it is manageable with lifelong treatment.


Similarly, while mammograms are the current standard of care for breast cancer screenings, it is important to know your breast density. Breast density plays an important role in the effectiveness of mammography screening; if you have dense breasts (and your mammographer should be able to tell you), you will want to ask for another type of screening such as an ultrasound or MRI in order to detect breast cancer.


Know your breasts (Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer) & Other Parts of Your Body


You should call your healthcare provider if you notice any: changes in the look, feel, or size of the breast, change in the look or feel of the nipple, dimpling or puckering of the skin, lump, hard knot, or thick spot in the breast tissue, nipple discharge, nipple or other area pulling inward, pain in one spot that won't go away, rash on the nipple, swelling of one or both breasts, warmth, redness, or dark spots on the skin.

It is also possible that breast cancer may be present without any of the aforementioned signs or symptoms. That is why it is very important to get screened using the right modality depending on your breast density in order to know whether or not you have breast cancer.


A sampling of Methods used to perform a breast self-examination

Method #1

The first step to Breast Self Exam is to look at your breasts in the mirror. Look for any changes in size, shape, color, or texture of the skin on the breast or around the nipple area. Check for dimpling, swelling, redness, or any other changes that may be present. This method can also help you become more familiar with the shape and texture of each breast so that it is easier for you to notice any changes during Breast Self Exam.


Method #2

The second method is known as palpation. To perform this Breast Self Exam technique you will use your hands to feel for anything unusual in your breasts.


With arms raised above your head, your goal is to get used to the feel of your breasts. This will help you to find anything new or different. If you do, contact your provider right away. When you know what's normal for you, you will be more aware of when changes occur. Many hospital clinics and healthcare provider offices focus on breast cancer awareness services, including breast cancer screening. You can help your healthcare team maintain your breast health by taking a few minutes once a month to conduct a breast self-exam.


Start at the collarbone and using a circular motion slowly move your fingers over each breast until you reach the armpit area. Be sure to check both sides and go deep into the breast tissue all the way up to the collarbone while feeling for any lumps or bumps that may be present.

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.


It is important to do breast self exams also during your menstrual cycle so you get a sense of what is normal. using your three middle fingers, be sure to check the entire breast area, and move in and up and down pattern and it only takes a few minutes! There is nothing to lose!


Method #3

The third Breast Self Exam technique is called percussion. During this Self Breast Examination technique lightly tap each part of your breast with your fingertips while looking in front of a mirror. This Breast Self Exam technique helps detect possible tumors that may not be felt through palpation alone. It is important to note if there are any areas on the breast where tapping produces a sound or sensation different from what was experienced elsewhere on your breasts during Breast Self Exam.


Method #4

1) A fourth method for BSE is in the shower with the pads/flats of your 3 middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area by pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, hardened knot, or any other breast changes.


2) In Front of a Mirror Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Then, raise them overhead and look for any changes. Next, place your hands on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Look for any dimpling or changes, particularly on the nipples.


3) Lying Down - When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand check the entire right breast area by pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze & roll each nipple between the thumb and forefinger checking for discharge (this would indicate infection). Repeat these steps for your left breast using the other hand.


Remember Breast Self Exams should be completed on a monthly basis as part of your overall health regimen. If you ever find an irregularity or lump during Breast Self Exams it is important to visit a doctor or other healthcare professional for further evaluation. Breast Self Exams are the best way to catch any abnormalities early and can potentially help save lives by providing early detection of breast cancer.


Finding Breast Cancer

Monthly breast self exams are a check-up a woman does at home to look for changes or problems in the breast tissue. Many women feel that doing this is important to their health. However, experts do not agree about the benefits of breast self-exams in finding breast cancer or saving lives. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether breast self-exams are right for you.

The best time to do a monthly breast self-exam is about 3 to 5 days after your period starts. Do it at the same time every month. Your breasts are least likely to be tender and swollen at this time. Check each breast and armpit carefully. Look for changes such as:

  • Lump, hard knot, or thickening inside the breast or underarm area

  • Swelling, warmth, redness, or darkening of the breast

  • Change in size or shape of the breast

  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin

  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple

If you find any changes in your breasts that don't go away after your period, talk to your healthcare provider. Self Breast Examinations are a great way to stay informed and proactive about your health! So make sure you Self Breast Exam every month and keep yourself healthy! If ever you're worried about something you notice during Self Breast Exam, be sure to consult a doctor as soon as possible.


Are self-breast exams recommended?

Yes, Self Breast Examinations are still recommended as an important screening and early detection tool for breast cancer. Self-exams can help you become familiar with the size, shape, texture, and temperature of your breasts so that any changes can be detected quickly and addressed appropriately. Regular Self Breast Examinations should be combined with other screening tools such as mammograms to ensure earlier detection if any irregularities or lumps are present.

Are self-breast exams better than mammograms?

Self Breast Examinations are an important part of health care and can be used as a tool in the early detection of breast cancer and confirmed through mammography and biopsy. Mammograms are screening tool used for the early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms use x-ray images to help detect any lumps or abnormalities that may indicate cancerous tissue. This type of screening is recommended for all women over the age of 40, though if you are high risk for breast cancer, you may start screenings earlier. It is important to note that Self Breast Examinations should also be completed regularly due to their ability to detect irregularities before they become larger issues.


Self Breast Examinations cannot replace mammography screenings; however, the information obtained from Self Breast Exams can provide supplemental data that could lead to earlier diagnosis if any irregularities or lumps are detected during the Self-Examining process.

Conclusion

Self Breast Examinations are an important tool in health care and should be done on a regular basis regardless of age or risk factors associated with breast cancer. Self Breast Examinations can help women become more familiar with their own bodies, allowing them to detect any irregularities that may be present earlier on. Self Breast Examinations provide supplemental data that could lead to earlier diagnosis if any irregularities or lumps are detected during the Self-Examining process.


If any irregularities or lumps are found during Self Breast Examinations, it is important to contact your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can then recommend the appropriate next steps to be taken in order to properly diagnose and treat the issue. Early detection is key when it comes to breast cancer and Self Breast Exams can play an important role in finding issues quickly and addressing them appropriately. Self Breast Examinations are an important part of health care that should not be overlooked.

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