Breast cancer affects a significant number of women each year. Most breast cancers are slow-growing, but there are types that are aggressive, which is why early detection is essential. Regular screenings are the best way to detect breast cancer in its early stages. The most common recommended screenings are mammograms and doctor-performed clinical breast exams.
It may also be helpful for a woman to examine her breasts on her own once a month, usually about a week after her menstrual period, to identify any changes or abnormalities such as lumps, swelling, irritation or pain. A woman who is no longer menstruating should check her breasts on the same day each month. Breast self-exams are not officially recommended as a screening tool for breast cancer because their success in detecting early-stage cancers and increasing the survival rate have not been proven. But, by becoming familiar with the way her breasts normally look and feel, a woman may recognize changes indicating an abnormality.
Breast Self-Exam Techniques
Self-examinations are simple and quick, and can be done using two different techniques.
A woman should lie down on her back with a pillow under her right shoulder, and her right arm behind her head. Using the pads of the three middle fingers on the left hand, she should check the right breast and under the right armpit, following the steps below:
1. Methodically move the fingers using a circular or up-and-down motion
2. Feel the skin, and tissue just beneath the skin, using light pressure
3. Check the tissue in the middle of the breast using medium pressure
4. Explore the deep tissue in the back of the breast using firm pressure
5. Squeeze the nipple to check for lumps or discharge
The second technique is similar but, this time, the exam is performed while showering, using wet, soapy hands, or while standing in front of a mirror. A woman should also, using the positions below, stand in front of a mirror to compare her breasts for differences in appearance.
- With arms at sides
- With arms overhead
- With hands on hips, pressing firmly to flex the chest muscles
- Bent forward
These positions make the pectoral muscles contract. If their contraction causes the skin to dimple slightly, it may be an indication of a ligament-affecting tumor.
Breast Self-Exam Results
In addition to a lump in the breast, a breast exam may reveal the following:
- Swelling in the armpit
- Pain or tenderness in the breast
- A change in the nipple
- An unusual discharge from the nipple
- A flattening or indentation in the breast
- A lump in the armpit that does not go away after a menstrual cycle
- A change in the size, contour, texture or temperature of the breast
If a breast exam reveals any of the above, an appointment should immediately be made with a physician.