Breast Health Self Exam

Preventive care that includes regular self breast exams can help you detect abnormal breast changes and early signs of breast cancer. While you can’t prevent breast cancer, treatment is far more successful with early detection. By learning to conduct regular self breast exams, you may be able to detect an abnormal lump while it’s still easily treatable.

When Should I Conduct a Breast Examination?

A self breast examination allows you to get to know how your healthy breasts feel, making it easier to detect abnormal changes or the growth of a lump.

Since breast shape and size change over the course of a woman’s life, some doctors recommend that women begin performing self breasts exams in their late teens, once their breasts have fully matured. Sexual partners may also perceive changes; however, these should be confirmed with a self breast examination, and then by a doctor.

The American Cancer Society (2010) recommends performing regular breast self exams either sporadically, or monthly after your period, once any breast tenderness has subsided. If you perform self exams during pregnancy, remember that your breasts will naturally change during this time as your body prepares for milk production.

How do I Perform a Self Breast Examination?

To perform a self exam on your breasts, lie on your back, place a pillow under your right shoulder and place your right arm behind your head; this position will flatten the right breast.

With your left three middle fingers together and extended, move your finger pads in tiny circles in a large circle around the outside of the breast. Do this in smaller and smaller circles, until you’ve covered the entire breast. You may want to repeat this procedure using a different level of pressure. Extend the area of coverage to the armpit, collarbone and shoulder. Finish the breast examination by gently squeezing the nipple to check for discharge. Repeat this entire examination on the left breast.

As long as you cover the entire region during a self breast exam, you can use alternate patterns of feel. You may use longitudinal lines (in the direction of head to foot) or radial lines from the outer margin to the nipple and back to the margin.

Self Breast Examination Limitations

According to the American Cancer Society (2010), self breast exams only play a small role in detecting early signs of breast cancer, compared with finding an abnormal lump by chance. As a result, the American Cancer Society now considers a monthly self breast examination as an option–rather than a requirement–for women beginning in their 20s. Your primary care physician or OBGYN should also examine your breasts during your routine doctor visits.

Resources

American Cancer Society. (2010). Breast cancer: Early detection. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003165-pdf.pdf

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2009). Breast self-exam. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp145.cfm

Mayo Clinic. (2009). Breast exam. Retrieved November 18, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/breast-exam/MY00743

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.) Breast self exam. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001993.htm