The breast self-exam, where are we now?

October 04, 2017 | by Christine Gresik, MD

It’s important to know the ins and outs of your body, especially if you notice something doesn’t look or feel normal. This includes getting to know your breasts, and recognizing changes that may signal something is wrong.

It all begins with breast self-awareness. Since breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S and it can be successfully treated if caught early, it is important for you to:

  • Know your risk of breast cancer, including your family health history
  • Get screened and have a mammogram yearly, starting at age 40 or based on your provider’s recommendations and your family history
  • See a doctor if you notice any lumps, pain, swelling or changes in breast size or shape
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices

Yearly mammograms are the most popular screening tests for women, but some physicians recommend women conduct a breast self-exam (BSE) at least once a month.

A BSE is a step-by-step approach a woman can use to look at and feel her breasts to check for anything abnormal. This type of self-exam can help you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert a healthcare professional of any changes.

Breast self-exams can be performed:

  • In the shower
  • In front of mirror
  • Lying down

If you are conducting a self-exam, you should look for any lump, thickening or hardened knot. You should also look for any changes in breast contour, swelling, dimpling of the skin or changes in the nipples.

According to the American Cancer Society, research has not shown a clear benefit of physical breast exams, either done by a professional or done by yourself, since there is very little evidence these exams help find breast cancer early when women also get screening mammograms. Because of the BSE debate, many organizations are choosing to say a BSE is an optional screening tool for women.

Even though a self-exam is not recommended as a screening tool, it is important to pay attention to how your breasts look and feel so you know what’s normal for you. If you notice one of the following warning signs, contact your physician:

  • A new lump or mass
  • A painless hard mass with irregular edges or a painful, tender, soft or round mass
  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)

Learn more about mammograms.

Schedule your annual screening mammogram today.


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