Early detection of breast cancer can improve survival rates and lessen the severity of treatment options. Routine mammograms are essential to catching signs of breast cancer early on, but so can home-based breast exams.
Over the years there has been some debate about the effectiveness of breast self-exams. Different breast cancer organizations have different views on the subject. Some studies have indicated that a self-exam is not effective in reducing breast cancer mortality rates. Some argue that these exams also may put women at risk — increasing the number of potential lumps found due to uncertainty as to what is being felt in the breast. This can lead to unnecessary biopsies. Others feel that a self-exam is a good practice, considering that roughly 20 percent of breast cancers are found by physical examination rather than by mammography, according to BreastCancer.org.
The American Cancer Society takes the position that a self-exam is an optional screening tool for breast cancer. For those who are interested in conducting self-exams, here is the proper way to do so:
Begin with a visual inspection of the breasts. Remove clothing and stand in front of a mirror. Turn and pivot so the breasts can be seen at all angles. Make a note of your breasts’ appearances. Pay special attention to any dimpling, puckering, or oddness in the appearance of the skin. Check to see if there is any change in symmetry or size of the breasts.
Continue the examination with hands placed by the hips and then again with your hands elevated overhead with your palms pressed together.
Next you will move on to a physical examination. This can be done either by reclining on a bed, the floor, or any flat surface. The exam can also be done in the shower. To begin examining the breasts, place the hand and arm for the breast you will be examining behind your head. Use the pads of your pointer, middle, and ring fingers to push and massage at the breast in a clockwise motion. Begin at the outer portion of the breast, slowly working inward in a circular motion until you are at the nipple. Be sure to also check the tissue under the breast and by the armpit.
Do the same process on the opposite breast. Note if there are any differences from one breast to the other.
If you find any abnormalities, mark them down on an illustration that you can bring to the doctor. Or, if you can get an appointment immediately, draw a ring around the area with a pen so that you will be able to show the doctor directly where you have concern.
It is a good idea to conduct a breast self-exam once a month and not when menstruating, when breasts may change due to hormone fluctuation. Frequent examinations will better acquaint you with what is normal with your breasts and better help you recognize if something feels abnormal.