Performing Breast Self-Exams

Breast cancer can be a devastating disease, especially if it is not caught in its early stages. However, with frequent checkups and examinations, you can help to lower your overall risk of breast cancer and increase your chances of an early diagnosis. This can make treatment much more effective, improving your likelihood of complete recovery. Every woman over the age of 20 should know how to perform a breast self-examination. A breast self-examination can help you to take an active role in your own health and well-being and it may even help to save your life.

What is a Breast Self Examination (BSE)?
A breast self-examination is a test that you can perform on yourself to check for any lumps, bumps, or irregularities in your breasts. The breast self-exam involves looking at your breasts for any changes or irregularities. It also involves touching your breasts to assess their texture, shape, and size. It is performed in the comfort and privacy of your own home.

Why Do Breast Self-Exams?
Though it may seem like a hassle, doing your own breast exams is actually an extremely important part of a healthy lifestyle. Regular and properly performed breast exams can help you to detect the signs of many different types of breast cancer. This is because breast self-exams allow you to become more familiar with how your breasts look and feel. This will help you to become aware of any changes or irregularities in your breasts, improving the chances of an early diagnosis and successful treatment.


When Should You Perform a Breast Self Exam?
Breast self-exams should be performed once every month by every woman over the age of 20. By performing an exam each month, you will become more familiar with how your breasts should look and feel and you will be able to track any changes in your breasts. Breast self-exams are most effective when performed at particular times during the month:


  • Menstruating women should perform self exams seven to ten days after their period, when the breasts are less tender and swollen.
  • Pregnant women should perform self exams seven to ten days after their periods would have arrived.
  • Women who are no longer menstruating should perform their exams on days that are easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.


Breast Self Exams During Pregnancy
Breast self-exams are of particular importance during pregnancy. Breast cancer can occur during pregnancy, and affects about 1 out of every 3,000 pregnant women. During pregnancy, you will find that you experience a number of breast changes. This is due to the increase in progesterone and estrogen in your bloodstream. You may find that your breasts are bigger or more tender then usual and this can make self-examination difficult.

Try to perform your exams on days when your breasts are less sensitive, or perform examinations while taking a soothing bath or shower. Be sure to have a clinical examination performed at your first prenatal appointment. This will allow your health care provider to feel for any abnormalities before breast changes occur.

What to Look For During a Breast Self Exam
During your breast self-exams, it is important to look at all areas of your breasts: check the upper, outer area near the armpit; the lower half of the breast; and beneath the nipple. You are basically looking for any changes in breast shape or texture, or for changes in your nipples or breast skin. Be on the lookout for:


  • hard lumps or knots beneath the skin
  • thickening, swelling, or dimpling of the skin
  • change in the size, shape, or symmetry of your breasts
  • nipple discharge
  • nipple tenderness
  • nipple inversion or a change in the direction of your nipple


How to Perform a Breast Self Exam
Breast self-exams are fairly easy to do once you get the hang of them. They generally take about 15 or 20 minutes. Be sure to follow the steps as closely as possible.


  1. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips and your shoulders straight. Look at your breasts and check their shape, size, and symmetry. Be sure to check for signs of rash, dimpling, or swelling.
  2. Raise your arms and continue looking in the mirror. Again, check the shape, size, and symmetry of your breasts. Check to see if your nipples have changed position or become inverted. Look for dimpling of the skin.
  3. Gently squeeze each of your nipples. Check for any type of discharge, either milky, yellow, or bloody.
  4. Now, lie down on your bed or on the floor with one arm placed behind your head. Use your right hand to examine your left breast, and your left hand to examine your right breast. Using the first three fingers on your hand, palpate your whole breast, from your collarbone down to the beginning of your abdomen. Work in a circular motion, starting with your nipple and gradually working your way out.
  5. Next, feel your breasts while sitting or standing. Cover the entire breast, feeling for any lumps or changes in your breasts� texture.


What to Do if You Find a Lump
If you find a lump in one of your breasts it is important not to panic. Though the experience can be very stressful, it is important to keep in mind that over 80% of all lumps found are actually benign (non-cancerous). Keep monitoring this lump over your next menstrual cycle. If the lump hasn�t disappeared or appears to be getting worse, make an appointment with your health care provider. Your health care provider will be able to perform a clinical examination and assess the lump.


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