A monthly routine of breast self-exams is one of the most important health habits women can adopt — and it’s even important for men with a family history of breast cancer. Many breast lumps are discovered this way. While most breast lumps are not cancerous, identifying changes to your breast(s) and visiting a medical professional with any concerns you may have can play a key role in the early detection of breast cancer symptoms.
When to perform a self-exam
A breast self-exam (BSE) is a simple process. It requires only a few minutes of your time each month to perform a complete exam. The best time of the month to do the exam is seven to 10 days after the start of your menstrual cycle. For women who no longer menstruate, it is recommended that you choose the same day each month for performing your BSE.
The keys to successful breast self-exams are:
- doing them consistently every month; and,
- doing them in the same way each time, following recommended guidelines.
How to perform a self-exam
Look for changes at the mirror (with good light)
- First, relax sitting or standing, whichever is most comfortable.
- With your arms at your sides, look for changes in your breasts—lumps, thickenings, dimples or changes in the skin texture or appearance.
- Next, raise your arms above or behind your head, again looking for changes.
- Then, with your hands on your hips, press down and tense your chest muscles. This will make any changes more prominent. It may be helpful to lean forward just a bit from the waist so your breasts are not lying on the chest wall.
Feel for changes
Research suggests that the most thorough technique for performing a breast self-exam is the “vertical method”—in which the fingertips are moved up and down each breast in column fashion from one side of the breast to the other.
However, the best method ultimately is the one you are most comfortable using every month to check all of your breast tissue. Ask your healthcare provider for advice if feeling uncertain about your technique.
This portion of the exam is done while lying on your back. When you are lying on your back, the breast tissue spreads more evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it much easier to feel all of the breast tissue.
- Once you are lying on your back and are comfortable, place your right arm behind your head.
- Place a pillow or rolled towel under your right shoulder.
- Use the pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast.
- Use overlapping dime-sized circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
- Feel a small portion of the breast at a time, until the entire breast has been checked.
- Use three different levels of pressure to feel all of the breast tissue:
- Now repeat the exam on your left breast with your right hand.
If You Have Breast Implants
- Perform the self-exam using the techniques listed above.
- Also perform the self-exam while displacing or moving the implant and feeling above, below, behind and side to side of the implant.
That’s all there is to it! But don’t forget, if you find a change that concerns you, call your healthcare provider promptly, and be sure to tell the person answering the phone why you are calling.
REMEMBER: The best methods we currently have for detecting breast cancer early, when the likelihood of survival is greatest, are regular breast self-examinations, mammograms, and clinical breast exams performed by your healthcare provider.