The Importance of Breast Self-Exam

You know your body better than anyone else, which is why doing regular breast self-exams is so important. Here, we will walk through everything you need to know about examining your breasts each month. Breast cancer is scary, but catching it early makes a huge difference. We’ll go over what to look and feel for, what’s normal versus unusual, and when to consult a medical professional.


What Is a Breast Self-Exam and Why Is It Important?

A breast self-exam (BSE) is when you inspect your breasts for changes or abnormalities. It helps you familiarize yourself with your normal breast tissue, making it easier to notice changes such as lumps, pain, or swelling. Performing monthly BSEs is necessary for the early detection of breast cancer, when it has a high survival rate.

BSEs also allow you to monitor your health in between breast cancer screenings.


What to Look for During a Breast Self-Exam

In the simplest sense, you are looking for irregularities that indicate your breasts may be harboring growths. A healthy pair of breasts is evenly sized and similar in shape, coloring, and texture. There should be no distortion, visible swelling, hardening, or discharge.

As mentioned, it would help if you’re familiar with your breasts, so make an effort to check them at least once every month. You can also keep a journal to track any changes.

The following are red flags signaling the need for a doctor’s opinion:

  • Size and shape: Look for noticeable changes in the overall size or shape of your breasts, including swelling, shrinkage, or any distortion.
  • Skin texture: The skin on your breasts should be smooth and evenly colored. Note any skin dimpling, puckering, or bulging. Redness or a rash can also be a sign of inflammation or infection.
  • Nipple changes: Look for inversion, discharge, or bleeding in the nipples. Fluid secretion of any kind, especially if it contains blood, requires medical evaluation.
  • Lumps or thickening: Use the pads of your fingers, gently feeling your entire breast area in small circles. Feel for lumps, knots, or thickening of the tissue. Keep in mind that most lumps are painless, meaning you need to rely on physical touch to feel them.
  • Pain or tenderness: Persistent pain, tenderness, or sensitivity, especially in one breast or if localized to one area of the breast, calls for a medical examination.

Knowing the signs to look out for can help identify breast cancer at a stage when the chance of successful treatment is highest. See a doctor right away if you notice any suspicious changes in your breasts.

Also read: Breast Changes: Are You at Risk of Breast Cancer?


When to Start Performing Self-Breast Exams

Once you reach your 20s, you need to conduct regular breast self-exams. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to touch your own breasts. There is nothing suggestive or vulgar about checking them for potential signs of disease.

If you menstruate, the recommended time to examine your breasts is after your period ends, when your breasts are no longer tender.

If you are postmenopausal, pick a day each month to examine your breasts. Postmenopausal women have a higher risk of breast cancer, making monthly self-exams crucial.

If you are pregnant, consult your physician for personalized recommendations on when and how to perform breast self-exams during pregnancy. In general, you may perform a BSE when your breasts are not swollen or tender, which occurs during certain stages of pregnancy.

If you are male or assigned male at birth, choose one day per month to perform a self-examination of your breasts. Remember, men can get breast cancer, too.

Your health is worth the few minutes it takes to complete a breast self-exam. Make it a habit and encourage the people in your life to do the same. While BSEs are not a substitute for regular mammograms and doctor checkups, they can help you become familiar with your breasts so you immediately notice if anything feels or looks different.

Again, early detection of breast abnormalities or breast cancer saves lives. If you find an area of concern–don’t panic! See a doctor right away for an exam. The odds are it’s not cancer, but only your doctor can provide a proper diagnosis.


Step-by-Step Guide to Doing a Breast Self-Exam

Conducting regular breast self-exams is one way to spot early signs of breast cancer. Here is a quick guide to performing a breast self-exam:

Step 1: Stand before a mirror with your hands on your hips and inspect your breasts.

Look for any changes in size, shape, or contour. Check for dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin. Determine whether both nipples turn inward.


Step 2: Raise your arms overhead.

Look for the same changes, especially under your arms. Lower your arms and examine for fluid discharge from the nipples, which could indicate a problem. See a doctor as soon as possible.


Step 3: Lie down and use the pads of your fingers to examine your breasts.

Use small circular motions, about the size of a quarter. Start at the outer edge and move inward, using light, medium, and firm pressure. Feel for any lumps, hard knots, or thickening. Pay extra attention to the area between your armpit and nipple. Check whether both breasts feel the same in all areas.


Step 4: Gently squeeze the nipple to check for any discharge.

Clear, milky, or bloody discharge from one or both breasts could be a sign of either an infection, duct ectasia, intraductal papilloma, or, less frequently, breast cancer. Unless you’re currently breastfeeding, any secretion from the breast requires immediate medical attention.


Step 5: Repeat the self-exam regularly to gain familiarity with your breasts.

Any changes from month to month could be a sign of breast cancer. See your doctor right away, especially if you are over 40, have a family history of breast cancer, have dense breasts, or have other risk factors.


Additional Ways to Check Your Breasts at Home

Here are other ways to perform a breast self-exam:

While Lying Down

Lying on your back allows your breasts to spread evenly, making it easier to spot abnormalities.

  1. Start by placing a pillow under your right shoulder and lying on your back. Lift your right arm above your head. This position exposes your right breast and armpit fully.
  2. Use your left hand to feel your right breast. Using a firm, smooth touch with the pads of your fingers, feel the entire breast and armpit in a circular motion. Press firmly enough to feel any lumps or thickened tissue beneath the skin and tissue. Check from your collarbone to the top of your breast, and from your armpit to your cleavage.  
  3. Repeat the process for your left breast. Position a pillow under your left shoulder and lift your left arm above your head. Use your right hand to feel your left breast and armpit in a circular, firm motion.

Further reading: Is It Back? Signs of Breast Cancer Recurrence


While Bathing

Checking your breasts while showering or soaking in a bathtub is another way to practice breast self-awareness. Inspecting your breasts when they are drenched, soapy, and slippery makes it easier to feel any changes. Simply raise your right arm and use your left hand’s fingers to check your right breast. Start from the outside of the breast to the center, then gently squeeze your nipple to check for discharge. Repeat on the left side.

If you try these additional methods, don’t forget to examine your breasts in front of a mirror, too. If you don’t have a full-length mirror, use a handheld version to look for size, shape, or symmetry changes. Also, check for dimpling, puckering, redness, and other changes in the skin.

By following these steps each month, you are taking an active role in monitoring your health and overall wellness. While breast self-exams can never replace mammograms, they provide a high degree of awareness about what’s normal for your body. If done consistently and accurately, they can help detect breast cancer at an early stage.


Breast Self-Exam Tools and Aids

To perform an effective self-exam, you will need the following:

1. Full-length and/or handheld mirror

Examining your breasts, nipples, and armpits in front of a large mirror makes it easier to notice changes while performing BSEs. People who prefer to conduct self-exams while lying down or in the shower can use a small-standing or handheld mirror instead.


2. Breast self-exam chart

A breast self-exam poster explains how to detect abnormalities within the breast. Anatomically and diagrammatically illustrated, BSE posters display the anatomy and pathology of a woman’s breast. Unfortunately, visual aids depicting male breast anatomy for self-exams are not widely available. Still, human breasts in both sexes have fatty tissue, breast cells, ducts, and nipples, so the same guidelines for performing breast self-exams apply.

A BSE chart typically includes:

  • Anatomy of the breast, including the types of lymph nodes, tissue, vessels, and muscles.
  • Areas of the breast. BSE posters often divide the breast into various regions to delineate and compare clinical findings.
  • Guidance on performing breast self-exams, including how to conduct a visual inspection in the mirror and how to check for breast abnormalities while lying down or when in the shower.
  • Images showing the difference between a healthy breast and one with abnormalities.
  • Noncancerous (benign) breast conditions, including fibrocystic breasts, fibroadenomas, cysts, breast fat necrosis, and intraductal papillomas.
  • Explanation of breast cancer screening methods, including clinical breast examination, mammography, ultrasonography, and biopsy.

You can find breast self-examination (BSE) charts online and offline. Amazon, eBay, and medical supply stores often have them available for purchase. Healthcare providers and organizations dedicated to breast cancer awareness may also provide educational materials, including BSE charts, either for free or for a nominal fee.


FAQs About Breast Self-Examinations

Whether you’re new to self-exams or seeking clarity on common concerns, this resource aims to answer the commonly asked questions about breast self-exams.


1. What can be mistaken for a breast lump?

The following can mimic breast lumps and cause unnecessary worry:

  • Fibrocystic changes are common and noncancerous. They cause lumps, thickening, and tenderness, especially the week before a woman’s period.
  • Lymph nodes in the armpit area can sometimes swell due to minor infections. Swollen lymph nodes may feel like a lump. However, they are only suspicious if they do not return to normal in a few weeks.  
  • Cystic growths are sacs of fluid within breast tissue. They often change in size during a woman’s menstrual cycle. The majority of breast cysts are noncancerous and resolve on their own over time.
  • Fibroadenoma is a painless, unilateral, benign tumor that often affects women between 14 and 35 years old, but it can occur at any age. It shrinks after menopause and, therefore, is uncommon in postmenopausal women.
  • Intraductal papilloma is a small, noncancerous tumor in a milk duct. It is more common in women between 35 and 55, but it develops in men, too.
  • Fat necrosis occurs when injured fatty tissue in the breast forms scar tissue, which may feel like a lump. This death of fat tissue is common after breast trauma or surgeries. It is harmless.

Although most breast changes are benign, ensure to report any new lump, thickening, or change in the breast to a healthcare provider. Diagnostic screening remains necessary to determine the cause and rule out cancer.


2. What are the 5 Ps of breast self-exams?

The 5 Ps of a breast self-exam are:

  • Position: Find a comfortable position, sitting or standing, with your arm relaxed at your side. 
  • Pillow: Place a small pillow or towel under your breast to make it firmer.  
  • Pattern: Using the pads of your fingers, examine your breasts using small circular motions. Move in a pattern to ensure thorough coverage.  
  • Pressure: Apply medium pressure as you move your fingers over the breast tissue.
  • Pain: Report any breast changes, lumps, or pain to your doctor.


3. Do breast tumors hurt when pressed?

Breast tumors can sometimes cause pain when pressed or manipulated. Benign breast tumors are more likely to cause pain when touched or squeezed. However, applying pressure to a malignant (cancerous) breast tumor can also cause pain.

The amount of pain experienced depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor within the breast tissue. Some people with breast tumors report no pain at all, while others experience mild to severe pain, tenderness, or discomfort. If you experience persistent breast pain or tenderness, see a healthcare provider to determine the cause. A clinical breast exam and imaging tests like mammography or ultrasound can help diagnose breast abnormalities.


4. How long should you wait to get a breast lump checked?

If you feel a lump in your breast, have it checked by a medical professional as soon as possible. While 60 to 80 percent of them are benign, remember that some are still cancerous. The general recommendation is to see a general practitioner if you’re worried, or if the lump is still there after two weeks. Waiting longer can delay an early diagnosis and treatment, if needed.


5. How long can you have breast cancer without knowing?

Depending on the form of breast cancer and how aggressive it is, you can have it for months or years without realizing. In many cases, breast cancer has no obvious symptoms during the early stages. Like Bret Miller, a male breast cancer survivor, many get diagnosed after noticing a lump during routine breast self-exams. A palpable lump may indicate stage II or III, but it varies based on factors like tumor type and individual physiology.

6. Is mammography still necessary if you perform regular self-exams?

Until scientific researchers invent more advanced screening options, mammograms will remain a crucial breast cancer screening tool, even if you perform monthly self-exams.

Breast self-examinations have limitations. Only about 50 and 71 percent of breast cancer cases in women aged 50+ and below 50, respectively, are detected by patients themselves. Countless others do not detect lumps or signs of cancer via at-home inspections.

Mammograms, on the one hand, can reveal tumors that may be too small to detect on your own. While mammograms can produce false positives, annual or bi-annual screening starting at age 40 can lower the risk of premature death due to breast cancer.


7. What if you feel a lump? Should you panic?

No. Always remember that most lumps are NOT cancerous. Try to be positive and remain calm until you speak with your doctor. Make an appointment as soon as possible. The sooner you get it checked, the sooner you will know whether you need treatment.


The Bottom Line

Performing a breast exam once a month can save your life. Even if you feel uncomfortable or awkward, don’t let that stop you. Male or female, young or mature – make it part of your routine. The more you conduct a BSE, the more familiar you’ll become with it. And remember, if you notice unusual changes in your breasts, schedule an appointment with your GP right away.


Your Alternative Breast Cancer Treatment Options

Everyone deserves the very best care if diagnosed with breast cancer. The experienced team at New Hope Unlimited offers treatment options with a patient-centered approach. We focus on treating the whole person, not just the disease.

If breast cancer arises, we ensure you have access to:

  • Leading-edge treatment options  
  • Integrative therapies to manage side effects
  • Support systems and nutrition guidance
  • Rehabilitation and follow-up care

Get the care you need for the journey ahead. Contact us now to discuss your alternative breast cancer treatment options.

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