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Breast self-exam, or regularly examining your breasts on your own, can be an important way to find a breast cancer early, when it’s more likely to be treated successfully. While no single test can detect all breast cancers early, Breastcancer.org believes that performing breast self-exam in combination with other screening methods can increase the odds of early detection.
Over the years, there has been some debate over just how valuable breast self-examination is in detecting breast cancer early and increasing the likelihood of survival. For example, a 2008 study of nearly 400,000 women in Russia and China reported that breast self-examination does not have a meaningful impact on breast cancer survival rates and may even cause harm by prompting unnecessary biopsies (removal and examination of suspicious tissue). Because of the ongoing uncertainty raised by this and other studies, the American Cancer Society no longer recommends breast self-exam as a screening tool for women with an average risk of breast cancer.
Breastcancer.org still believes that breast self-examination is a useful and important screening tool, especially when used in combination with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammography, and in some cases ultrasound and/or MRI. Each of these screening tools works in a different way and has strengths and weaknesses. Breast self-exam is a convenient, no-cost tool that you can use on a regular basis and at any age. We recommend that all women routinely perform breast self-exams as part of their overall breast cancer screening strategy.
How to do a breast self-exam:
The five steps
What to do if you find a lump
Don’t panic if you think you feel a lump in your breast. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time, and most breast lumps turn out to be benign (not cancer). There are a number of possible causes of non-cancerous breast lumps, including normal hormonal changes, a benign breast condition, or an injury.
Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you’ve noticed a lump or other breast change that is new and worrisome. This is especially true for changes that last more than one full menstrual cycle or seem to get bigger or more prominent in some way. If you menstruate, you may want to wait until after your period to see if the lump or other breast change disappears on its own before calling your doctor. The best healthcare provider to call would be one who knows you and has done a breast exam on you before — for example, your gynecologist, primary care doctor, or a nurse practitioner who works with your gynecologist or primary care doctor.
Know what to expect. At an appointment to evaluate a breast lump, your doctor will take a health history and do a physical exam of the breast, and will most likely order breast imaging tests. Ultrasound is often the first or only imaging test used to evaluate a lump in women who are under age 30 or are pregnant or breastfeeding. Both an ultrasound and a mammogram are typically recommended to evaluate a lump in women who are over age 30 and not pregnant or breastfeeding. If further testing is needed, your doctor may recommend additional imaging with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), MBI (molecular breast imaging), and/or a biopsy. He or she may also refer you to a breast specialist (typically, a breast surgeon) for further evaluation.
Make sure you get answers. It’s important that your doctor gives you an explanation of the cause of the lump or other breast change and, if necessary, a plan for monitoring it or treating it. If you’re not comfortable with the advice of the first doctor you see, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion.
How to make breast self-exam part of your breast cancer screening strategy
Make it routine. The more you examine your breasts, the more you will learn about them and the easier it will become for you to tell if something has changed. Try to get in the habit of doing a breast self-examination once a month to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally look and feel. Examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day that's easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.
Get to know your breasts' different “neighborhoods.” The upper, outer area — near your armpit — tends to have the most prominent lumps and bumps. The lower half of your breast can feel like a sandy or pebbly beach. The area under the nipple can feel like a collection of large grains. Another part might feel like a lumpy bowl of oatmeal.
Start a journal where you record the findings of your breast self-exams. This can be like a small map of your breasts, with notes about where you feel lumps or irregularities. Especially in the beginning, this may help you remember, from month to month, what is “normal” for your breasts. It is not unusual for lumps to appear at certain times of the month, but then disappear, as your body changes with the menstrual cycle (if you are still menstruating).
Learn more about Breastcancer.org's recommendations on when to begin annual mammograms.