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A breast self-exam involves checking your breasts for lumps or changes. Many breast problems are first discovered by women themselves, often by accident. Breast lumps can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).
Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is most common in women older than 50. Lumps or changes also may be signs of other breast conditions, such as mastitis or a fibroadenoma.
Medical experts don't recommend regular breast self-examinations.footnote 1 Studies show that self-exams don't save women's lives and that they can lead to unneeded tests, such as biopsies. But some experts believe that women should know how their breasts look and feel (breast self-awareness) so any breast changes can be reported to a doctor.footnote 2
The best time to examine your breasts is usually 1 week after your menstrual period starts, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen or tender. Examining your breasts at other times in your menstrual cycle may make it hard to compare results of one exam with another.
If your menstrual cycle is irregular, or if you have stopped menstruating due to menopause or the removal of your uterus (hysterectomy), do your examination on a day of the month that's easy to remember.
A breast self-exam normally doesn't cause any discomfort. If your breasts are tender because your menstrual period is about to begin, you may feel slight discomfort when you press on your breasts.
To do a breast self-exam:
When in doubt about a particular lump, check your other breast. If you find the same kind of lump in the same area on the other breast, both breasts are probably normal.
In addition to examining your breasts while lying down, you may also check them while in the shower. Soapy fingers slide easily across the breast and may make it easier to feel changes. While standing in a shower, place one arm over your head and lightly soap your breast on that side. Then, using the flat surface of your fingers—not the fingertips—gently move your hand over your breast, feeling carefully for any lumps or thickened areas.
It takes practice to perform a breast self-exam. Having fibrocystic lumps also may make a breast self-exam difficult, because lumps occur throughout the breast. Ask your doctor for tips that can help you do it correctly.
After you know what your breasts normally look and feel like, any changes should be checked by a doctor. Changes may include:
Remember that most breast problems or changes are caused by something other than cancer.
Even if you choose to do breast self-exams, talk to your doctor about having regular mammograms as well as regular breast checkups at your doctor's office or the mammogram center.
The risk of doing breast self-exams is that you may find a breast change that makes you anxious and may lead to unnecessary tests (such as a biopsy).
Also, a change you notice on a breast self-exam may be a kind of cancer that would never cause symptoms or threaten your life. But because no one can tell what kinds of cancer will cause problems, all cancers are treated. This means that you may end up having treatments (such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy) that you don't need. These treatments can cause harmful side effects.
Because of these risks, many experts don't recommend breast self-exams. Others consider it an option for women. Talk with your doctor about breast self-exams.
CitationsU.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm.American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). Breast cancer screening. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 122. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118: 372–382. Other Works ConsultedAmerican Cancer Society (2009). Prevention and Early Detection: American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/ped_2_3X_ACS_Cancer_Detection_Guidelines_36.asp.U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsbrca.htm.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerWendy Y. Chen, MD, MPH - Medical Oncology, Hematology
Current as ofMarch 28, 2018
Current as of: March 28, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Wendy Y. Chen, MD, MPH - Medical Oncology, Hematology
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