Breast self-exam

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If you're a woman, your doctor or gynecologist may have recommended that you examine your breasts every month to check for lumps. You might be wondering, why do I need to do a breast self-exam? Or, you might ask, how do I examine my breasts, and what exactly am I looking for? Well, let's talk about why, and how to examine your breasts.

Why examine your breasts? Well, for one thing, it helps you get an idea of how they normally feel. Then if there's ever a problem, you'll be familiar enough with your breasts to spot it. For example, a lump on your breast could be a sign of breast cancer. Finding that lump could allow you to get checked out with a mammogram earlier than you might have done if you didn't do breast self exams. But, this is a two edged sword. Many expert groups no longer recommend routine breast self examination because the consequences of over treatment of benign or normal lumps may outweigh the benefits of early detection. Lumps lead to extra mammograms, which often lead to biopsies, and the biopsies turn out to be benign, or normal, in more than 90% of cases. But, not always. Some expert groups simply recommend breast self awareness. Ultimately, the choice is yours.

If you are going to do breast self exam, the best day to do a self exam is about 3 to 5 days after your period ends. Your breasts are naturally less lumpy right after your period, so there's less of a chance that you'll mistake a normal bump for an abnormal growth. If you've already gone through menopause and your periods have stopped, just do your exam on the same day every month. Mark it on your calendar so you won't forget.

To do the exam, lie on your back, as it's easier to feel any lumps or changes when you're lying down. First, put your right hand behind your head. Then, using the middle fingers on your left hand, gently but firmly press down, circling your entire breast. Make sure you cover the whole right breast. Squeeze your nipple gently. See if any fluid comes out. Now, sit up, and feel around your armpit. When you're done with the right breast, repeat the whole check on the left side.

Next, stand in front of a mirror. With your arms down at your sides, look at both breasts. Check the shape of each breast. Look for any changes in the skin, like dimpling or puckering. Also see if your nipples now turn inward. Now, do the exact same check again with your arms over your head.

After you've done a few breast self-exams, you'll become familiar with the look and shape of your breasts. At each exam, you're looking for anything different, like new bumps, changes in the texture of your skin, or discharge from your nipple. If you do notice that something has changed, don't panic, it could mean many different things. But, call your doctor as soon as you can so you can find out what's caused the change, and, if necessary, get it treated.

Breast self-exam

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 2/19/2016
  • Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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