What is a breast self-exam?
A breast self-exam is a screening technique you can do at home to check for breast lumps.
A breast self-exam can help screen for:
- other abnormalities in the breasts
A breast self-exam was once thought to be a good screening process for breast cancer. Now, a self-exam is considered to be less effective than other techniques, such as regular mammograms. This has led groups, such as the American Cancer Society, to deem breast self-exams optional.
However, breast self-exams help you familiarize yourself with the shape, size, and texture of your breasts. This is important because it can help you determine if what you’re feeling is normal or abnormal. Anytime you feel an abnormality in your breast, tell your healthcare provider.
The best time to do a breast self-exam is a few days after your monthly menstrual cycle ends. Hormonal changes can affect the size and feel of your breasts, so it’s best to perform the exam when your breasts are in their normal state.
Women who don’t menstruate should choose a certain day to perform the exam, such as the first day of each month.
You should also keep a journal of your self-exams. This will help you track and record any changes you have noticed in your breasts.
Start by standing topless in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides.
Visually inspect your breasts for the following:
- changes in size, shape, or symmetry
- inverted nipples
- asymmetrical ridges at the bottom
Check for these signs with your hands at your sides. Then, with your arms over your head, and again when lifting one breast at a time.
- Using the pads of your fingers, not the tips, inspect your breasts while lying down and again in the shower. The water and soap in the shower will allow your fingers to glide easily over your skin.
- Using varying pressure and taking your time, massage your fingers over your breasts in a spiral pattern starting at the nipple. Make your way up to the top of your breast near the collarbone, to the center by your breastbone, and to the sides near your armpits. Do this by putting one arm over your head while massaging your breast with the other hand.
- Lastly, gently squeeze your nipples to check for discharge.
There’s no medical risk involved in a breast self-exam. Finding a lump in your breast can be alarming, but a majority of breast lumps aren’t malignant, or cancerous. They’re typically caused by other, benign conditions.
Breast self-exams have also been associated with an increase in unnecessary breast biopsies, which are procedures that involve the surgical removal of breast tissue.
Because most abnormalities in breast tissue are noncancerous, the extra surgical procedures put women at risk for rare complications, such as bleeding and infection.
If you find a lump or abnormality, don’t panic. Remember that the vast majority of breast abnormalities turn out to be benign, or noncancerous.
Besides cancer, breast lumps can be caused by:
- fibroadenoma, which is a benign tumor of the breast tissue
- fibrocystic breast disease, which is painful, lumpy breasts caused by hormone changes
- intraductal papilloma, which is a small, benign tumor of the milk ducts
- mammary fat necrosis, which refers to lumps formed by bruised, dead, or injured fat tissue
This doesn’t mean that you should ignore a lump or abnormality. If you find a lump, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to have your breast professionally examined.