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Are Breast Self-Exams a Thing of the Past?

Monthly breast self-exams (BSE) were long hailed by medical professionals and healthcare organizations to help with early detection of breast cancer. Women dutifully added BSEs to their to-do list and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that several studies called into question the 70 year old advice. The new research revealed that clinical or self-exams were in fact not an effective method of early breast cancer detection and “optional” became the new recommendation.

Now that we know BSEs don’t help detect breast cancer early, should we stop? Absolutely not! The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass, so the more familiar you are with how your breasts normally look and feel, the more likely you are to notice the difference. While it’s unlikely to actually find a lump during a BSE, the important part is to know your normal. In most cases, when women detect breast cancer because of a lump, they find it during normal activities like getting dressed or bathing.

Breast Self-Exam How-To
Because hormonal changes can affect the size and feel of your breasts, it’s best to do a BSE 3-5 days after your period ends, when swelling and tenderness are down. No period? Just choose a day that’s easy to remember.

Lying Down

  • Step 1 – Lie down and place your right arm behind your head.
  • Step 2 – Use your three middle fingertips on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use overlapping dime-sized circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
  • Step 3 – Use three different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
  • Step 4 – Move around the breast in an up and down pattern starting at your underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone (sternum or breastbone). Be sure to check the entire breast moving downward until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collar bone (clavicle).
  • Step 5 – Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam.

Standing or Sitting
Many women find this part easiest in the shower when their skin is wet and slippery. Use the same arm placement and movements as when lying down.

In Front of a Mirror
While standing in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips, look at your breasts for any changes of size, shape, color, contour, dimpling, redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin. Also examine each underarm with your arm only slightly raised so you can easily feel in this area.

Sarah Drennan

Sarah Drennan, MD
Baton Rouge General Physicians - Obstetrics & Gynecology

Phone: (225) 237-1880