Breast Self-exam

Breast Self-Exam: What Every Woman Needs to Know

All women are at risk for breast cancer — one out of eight women will be diagnosed with this disease during their lifetime. But thanks to better, more advanced treatments, many of those diagnosed with breast cancer will go on to live full, active lives.

Early detection is important, because when a cancer is diagnosed in its earlier stages, treatments can be more effective and outcomes are generally better. One of the easiest detection methods you can do is the breast self-exam (BSE), a physical examination of your own breast tissue.

The BSE is something you can do by yourself, in private, on your own schedule. By getting to know how your breasts normally look and feel, the BSE can be an added defense against breast cancer through early detection. In fact, eight of 10 breast lumps are found by women themselves.

When and How Often Should I Perform My Breast Self-exam?

According to the guidelines set by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, you should perform a breast self-exam each month. By becoming more familiar with your normal breast tissue and appearance, it may make it easier for you to notice changes if and when they occur.

The ideal time for a BSE is seven to 10 days after the first day of your menstrual period. Your breasts are naturally less lumpy and tender at this time. The same is true if you have breast implants.

If you are pregnant, or no longer have menstrual cycles, you can perform your BSE at any time, but make it the same time each month.

If you are breast feeding, you should perform your monthly BSE at the same time each month after you have fed the baby.

How Do I Perform My Self-exam?

Your breast self-exam will only take a few minutes, but it is best to choose a time when you have some privacy and will not be disturbed.
  1. Stand undressed from the waist up in front of a full length mirror with your arms relaxed at your sides. If you cannot stand comfortably, you can do this part sitting down. Get to know how your breasts look. Even a small visual change may be a significant early sign of a problem.

  2. Compare your breasts while turning from side to side. Look for any changes in breast size, shape, skin texture or color including redness, dimpling, puckering or retraction (pulling back of your skin).

  3. Notice any nipple changes, such as scaliness, a pulling to one side, or a change in direction.

  4. Place your hands on your waist and press inward, then turn from side to side to note any changes. If you cannot place your hands on your waist, try clasping your hands together in front of you, to tighten the chest muscles.

  5. Tightening the chest muscles beneath the breasts in other ways can also help you notice changes. Try different positions, such as putting your hands above your head and turning side to side as you look.

  6. Place your hands at your waist and bow toward the mirror, letting your breasts fall forward. Note any changes in breast shape.

  7. Nipple discharge can be a sign of a problem. Look for any discharge in your bra or clothing, but do not squeeze the nipple or try to expel any secretions.

  8. Feel above and below your collarbone for pea- and bean-sized lumps or thickening. Applying skin cream or lotion can make this easier.

  9. Check for lumps or thickening under your arm while relaxing your arm at your side. Reach across with your other hand to feel the area. Check deeply up and down the inside of the armpit, and up and forward toward your chest. Note any changes from previous self-exams. For the next steps, lie down. The bed is okay.

  10. Place a pillow or folded towel under your left shoulder. This helps your breast tissue spread evenly across your chest wall. Bend your left arm behind your head and reach across with your right hand to your left breast. A little skin cream or lotion on your fingers will make them more sensitive.

  11. Begin the exam at the armpit. Move your three middle fingers together using light, medium and deep pressures.

  12. Your hand should move in straight rows to cover all the breast tissue from the line where your blouse seam would fall (midaxillary line) to the bra line, the breastbone (sternum) and collarbone (clavicle).

  13. Repeat steps 10 to 12 with the opposite breast and arm.

What if I Find Something?

Most commonly, lumps are benign and are usually not a serious health problem. However, always report any changes in appearance or texture in your breasts, as well as any nipple discharge, to your health care provider. He or she may then perform additional tests to determine the presence or absence of breast cancer.

Remember, breast tissue can vary in density naturally. Your breasts may change during different times of the month if you are still menstruating. Breast tissue also changes with age.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer or are looking for a second opinion consultation about your treatment, find out more about becoming a patient or contact us at 800-826-HOPE.