How to Do a Breast Self-Exam Correctly

Large or small breasts – all women from their 20s should perform monthly breast self-exams, this essential screening technique could be lifesaving in the early detection of breast cancer.

Doctors are encouraging their female patients not to wait until their half-year – year gynecologist appointments to check their breasts, but to conduct a monthly breast self-exam (BSE).

Why perform a BSE?Breast self-exam for early detection of breast cancer

Many women underestimate the importance of conducting a BSE, which is a woman’s first line of defense in detecting breast cancer. Breast self-exams enable women to become more familiar with the look and feel of their breasts so that should she detect changes she can refer to her doctor for a clinical examination.

Like other types of cancer, early detection is key to a successful outcome in the treatment of breast cancer, ignoring unusual changes of the breasts may be detrimental to a woman’s health. Notably, most changes in breast tissue could be due to normal physiological changes or a benign condition. BSEs are limited in that they do not provide a definite diagnosis, this is achieved only by seeking a doctor’s consultation that includes a clinical breast exam and mammography (further tests may be required).

In addition to detecting cancer early, the current advances in cancer treatment options optimizes the overall prognosis.

Breast self-exam: what to look out for

Women often worry that they are not performing a self-exam properly, what matters is that the whole breast area including under the armpits and upper chest regions felt for any changes, this includes examining the appearance of the breast and nipples. Women should look out for red spots, puckering and asymmetry of the breast or skin. Furthermore, swelling or lumps, skin irritation or dimpling should be reported to your doctor. Nipple changes to look out for include discharge, flaking (or redness), nipple pain or inward turning (retraction).

The breast self-exam: Step-by-step

The short animation below instructs women how to conduct a BSE in front of the mirror:

Step 1: Visual examination

Standing in front of a mirror, hands on your hips and then raised arms, visually inspect the breasts for any changes (above-mentioned), pay attention to the size, color and shape:

Step 2: Physical examination

Observe the methods in the video [below], applying 3 levels of varying pressure – light - tissue close to the skin, medium – deeper areas and lastly firm pressure in the areas close to the chest and ribs. Inspect the nipples for discharge. Raise one arm and alternate to check for lumps around the armpit region.

Recommendations for BSEs

Doctor Tami Karni, a leading breast surgeon at Herzliya Medical Center, Israel, shares her top guidelines on breast self-exams:

  • Mammograms form an essential role in detecting breast cancer, women over 40 should have mammograms
  • Perform self-exams regularly to get to know your breasts – this will help in detecting any possible unusual changes in future
  • Breast-exams should start for women in their 20s
  • Avoid self-exam preceding or during your menstrual cycle, when the breasts will feel tender – menopausal women should conduct self-exams the same time every month
  • Once familiar with the feel of your breasts, women should conduct self-exams on a monthly basis and a week following your menstrual cycle
  • Use the flats of your fingers to feel and push gently around the entire breast
  • Any lumps or unusual changes of the breasts should be reported immediately to your doctor
  • The breast tissue extends into the armpits, so it is important to feel around this region too
  • Pay attention to the appearance of the nipples
  • Each breast should be examined for at least 3 minutes, and from slightly different angles
  • In addition to the self-exam in front of a mirror, breast examination can be done while in the shower or lying on your back

It is quite normal for one breast to be usually larger or smaller than the other. Should you find a lump in your breast, do not panic: In the US, for example, around 20% of biopsied lumps are breast cancer.

Breast lumps can also be benign (non-cancerous), due to other conditions such as:

  • Fibrous breasts (fibroadenoma)
  • Fibrocystic breast conditions
  • Mastitis (breast inflammation)
  • Breast cysts
  • Intraductal papillomas

A cancerous lump detected early, minimizes the chances of mastectomy and possibly the need for chemotherapy. Women should still take into account that mammography are the gold standard in detecting breast cancer early, and that a BSE alone is not enough but more as an effective tool to identify breast changes.

Consult Herzliya Medical Center (HMC) if you notice any unusual changes or lumps in your breasts, or for a mammogram. In addition, specialists at HMC will advise you on performing BSEs. The private hospital in Israel offers revolutionary mammography using 3D imaging with lower radiation doses, this advanced precision in technology minimizes the need for invasive biopsies.

Don’t ignore a lump, take action for your health and contact HMC for a breast screening!

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