Whether you know someone who has been affected by breast cancer or you’ve simply read the statistics online, you probably know the impact of breast cancer on women. It’s the second most common cancer in American women, and for many women, regular screenings are at the top of their medical to-do list.
Going to your annual gynecological appointments, keeping up with your mammograms, and seeing your primary care physician regularly are all great ways to prevent breast cancer. But one more quick and easy step is the breast self-exam.
With a breast self-exam, you check your own breasts for changes, lumps or any other concerns.
However, there is some controversy about breast self-exams.
Are Breast Self-exams Worth It?
Here’s the issue: There isn’t any definite evidence that says breast self-exams have a clear benefit in finding, diagnosing, and treating breast cancer. Most women who find a lump that turns out to be cancer find it while going through their daily routine, such as while getting dressed or taking a shower.
Breast self-exams allow you to find possible lumps on purpose. Whether you find a lump during a self-exam or while you were lathering up the shower — you still found it.
Almost 50% of all diagnosed breast cancers are found by women finding a lump on their own.
Doing these self-exams regularly can also help you become more familiar with how your breasts normally feel and look, which will make it easier to notice any changes. Because a breast self-exam is a painless, easy, and free way to stay on top of your breast health, it can be a good way to be proactive against breast cancer.
I Found a Breast Lump: Now What?
Remember a self-exam is a screening tool — it looks for signs of cancer, but it doesn’t mean anything without further testing. Finding a lump doesn’t mean you have cancer. In fact, 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous. They may be something else, like a cyst or a non-cancerous tumor.
Still, it’s important to tell your health care provider as soon as possible. This is an essential step, because it allows your provider to determine the next step. They may do further testing, such as a mammogram, breast ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — or they may simply monitor the lump at a follow-up appointment.
Beyond the Self-exam
Over the past three decades, breast cancer death rates in the U.S. have been going down — and that’s partly because of early detection. If you find cancer early, when it’s small and hasn’t spread to other parts of your body, it’s easier to treat. The best way to do that is through screening tools alongside your breast self-exams.
In addition to breast self-exams, breast cancer screenings include:
- Mammograms, which you should have regularly. Talk to your health care provider about when to start and how often to have them.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), which you may need to have if you’re at high risk of breast cancer beginning at age 30. High risk factors include having a first-degree relative that had cancer (such as a mom or sister), testing positive for the BRCA2 or BRCA2 gene mutations, or having radiation therapy to your chest between the ages of 10 and 30 years.
The Steps to a Self Breast Exam
If you decide to do a breast self-exam, the best time to do it about three to five days after your period begins — when your breasts may not be as tender or lumpy. If you’ve gone through menopause, you can do the exam at the same time each month.
- Lie on your back to easily examine all of the breast tissue.
- Place your right hand behind your head, and using the middle fingers of your left hand, press down gently but firmly on your right breast using small motions to examine the entire breast. These motions can be circular, up and down, or toward the nipple.
- Stand up (or sit upright), and feel your armpit where the breast tissue extends into.
- Gently squeeze the nipple to check for any discharge.
- Repeat the entire process with the left breast.
5 Steps to a Breast Self-exam
Once you’re done, stand in front of a mirror with your arms down by your side. Looking at your breasts:
- Check for any changes, such as skin texture, dimpling, or indentations
- Look at the shape and outline of your breast to note anything that looks different
- Check the nipple to see if it’s turned inward
Then, repeat this entire process with your arms raised above your head.
The purpose of a breast self-exam is to become familiar with your breasts and look for changes. If you do notice anything new or different, make an appointment with your provider right away.
If you decide that breast self-exams are not for you — that’s OK. You should still make sure you’re checking your breast health by keeping up with screenings that could save your life.
Do you still have questions about your breast health? Call (785) 354-5660 to make an appointment at Stormont Vail’s Women’s Center to speak to a women’s health care specialist about breast self-exams and other screening tools.