A breast self-exam is a screening technique you can do at home to check for breast lumps. It isn’t as effective as mammograms in detecting breast cancer, but it can help you recognize changes in your breast shape, size, and texture.

You should keep a journal of your self-exams. This will help you track and record any changes you have noticed in your breasts.

Anytime you feel an abnormality in your breast, tell your healthcare professional.

Nowadays, some organizations consider a self-exam less effective than regular mammograms in detecting cancer. For example, the American Cancer Society has deemed breast self-exams optional.

However, in a 2022 study, researchers found that among 426 breast masses, 96% of cancers and 81% of ultrasound findings have resulted from patient-identified lumps.

For this reason, breast self-exams can still be useful in tracking your breast health. They can help you familiarize yourself with your breasts’ shape, size, and texture. This is important because it can help you determine if what you’re noticing is normal or abnormal.

Visual exam

Follow these steps to visually examine your breast:

  1. Start by standing topless in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides.
  2. Visually inspect your breasts for the following:
    • changes in size, shape, or symmetry
    • dimpling
    • inverted nipples
    • puckering
    • asymmetrical ridges at the bottom
  3. 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.

Physical exam

After visually inspecting each breast, follow these signs to examine it with your hands:

  1. 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.
  2. Using varying pressure and taking your time, massage your fingers over your breasts in a spiral pattern starting at the nipple.
  3. Make your way up to the top of your breast near the collarbone, the center by your breastbone, and the sides near your armpits. Do this by putting one arm over your head while massaging your breast with the other hand.
  4. 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 (cancerous). They’re typically caused by other benign conditions.

Breast self-exams, clinical breast exams, and mammograms are usually reserved for people with a higher risk of breast cancer.

Here you’ll find answers to additional questions about breast exams.

What does a breast lump feel like?

If there is a lump on your breast, it will usually feel harder than other parts of your breast. However, some people with dense or cystic breasts may experience lumps. Breast consistency can also fluctuate around menstrual cycles.

It is best to speak with a doctor to rule out breast cancer if you find a lump on your breast or if you have dense breasts.

When should breast examinations be performed?

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 typical state. Females who don’t menstruate should choose a certain day to perform the exam, such as the first day of each month.

Why does my breast hurt when I press it?

There are different causes for pain in the breast when your press, and these are not necessarily cancer. They include hormonal changes, breast cysts, and injuries to the breast. Speak with your doctor to determine the cause of your breast pain.

If you find a lump or abnormality, don’t panic. Remember that the vast majority of breast abnormalities turn out benign or noncancerous.

Besides cancer, breast lumps can be caused by:

This doesn’t mean that you should ignore a lump or abnormality. If you find a lump, make an appointment with your healthcare professional to have your breast professionally examined.

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