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How To Do A Breast Self-Exam

Take Care of Your Breast Health

In the course of our outreach we meet many women concerned about breast cancer. Some have had family members touched by it, and so have a higher risk of being diagnosed. Some women actually come to us with lumps they’ve detected already. And many are underinsured or uninsured. The good news is that simple self-exam techniques can help you learn how your breasts normally look and feel so that you can be aware of any changes. And the more you know about what’s normal for you and your body, the more likely that health issues can be averted. All it takes is 20 minutes of your time once a month.

When Should I Do A Breast Self-Exam?

The best time is always when you’re most comfortable, in a quiet and private place you won’t be interrupted. A convenient time might be before or after you take a shower or before you go to bed at night, when you would normally be changing anyways and will likely have privacy and access to a mirror.

Because breasts change in relationship to the menstrual cycle, it’s always best to do it at the same time in your cycle. That way you won’t mistake a normal menstrual-related breast change as a lump. If, like many women, you get breast tenderness before and after the date of your period, make plans to avoid those days. No need to make this more of a pain!

If you don’t have a regular period—for instance if you are a man, have reached menopause, are undergoing hormone treatment, or are pregnant—just shoot for every 30 days.

Above all, though, it’s good to remember that there is no rule about when to do an exam. Don’t skip it because you think you’ve “missed your window.” The best time is the time that you’ll do it.

Do A Visual Breast Check

Because our breasts are usually covered, visual changes are not something that we or others notice in day-to-day life, so it’s important to put aside time to do a visual check.

First, make sure your top and bra, if you wear one, are off and you have strong lighting. Facing towards the mirror, look at your breasts. Do you see anything strange? Some things you should look for are:

  • Rash or redness
  • Areas of different textures
  • Skin thickening
  • Hot skin or swelling
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Skin puckering or pulling
  • Raised or recessed areas
  • Visible lumps
  • Inverted or recessed nipple
  • New vein growth
  • Area of thin skin
  • Obvious differences between the breasts

Now bend forward as if you were starting to bow to the mirror. Watch your breasts as you bow. Sometimes some of the issues above are difficult to see when stationary, but are obvious when you move. Do your breasts move fluidly and symmetrically?

Now face away from the mirror so that your profile is showing and look for the same issues. Make sure to check both sides!

The Physical Breast Exam

For the second part, stand or sit comfortably without a top or bra on. Use the three middle fingers of your hand and press your breast, as if you were massaging it, and make small circular motions at each press point. The more pressure you put, the deeper you’ll be able to feel, and the more breast tissue you’ll be able to check. So put as much pressure as you can without feeling uncomfortable. There are three different patterns you can take:

  • Circular—starting from your armpit, make a gradually smaller spiral around each breast, ending at the nipple
  • Wedge—imagine your breast as a pie cut into slices, and work along the outside of the pie and then along the cut lines to the center nipple area
  • Line—imagine a 1 inch wide grid overtop of your breast and work up and down the vertical lines

The goal of the physical exam is too feel every part of your breast, upper chest, and underarm area for lumps or skin thickenings. Like teeth brushing, the pattern you use is up to you. Just pick the pattern that you feel most confident will reach every portion of your breast.

Now do the same exam lying on your back. When you lie down, the breast tissue redistributes flatly against your chest and will give you the opportunity to feel different parts of your breast tissue.

Is This Normal?

The breasts are, by nature, fibrous, fatty and notably for young women, dense. Especially when you start doing exams, it may be tough to figure out if something is normal or not. If you’re unsure, ask yourself:

  • Do I feel this in the same spot on my other breast or in other parts of my breast? If so, it’s probably normal.
  • Does it hurt when I touch it? If so, you definitely want to get it checked.
  • Is it new? If you’re sure it wasn’t there last time you did an exam, get it checked.
  • Am I doing the exam at a different time than my normal schedule? If so, it might or might not be normal for that time of the month. Best bet is to do another exam at the right time and see if it’s still there.

As you do more breast exams you’ll get to know your breasts better and will have a better sense of what’s normal for you. So it’s important to be consistent. The strength of the breast self-exam is comparing how your breast feels today to how it felt last month.

What Do I Do If I Feel A Lump in My Breast?

First off, don’t panic! Most lumps are not cancer and are often benign. That’s no reason not to be safe, though. Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or gynecologist as soon as it’s convenient. If you are feeling stressed about it, mention the reason of your visit when you make the appointment. Many doctor’s offices offer priority scheduling for urgent issues that are above and beyond regular checkups.

If the wait time is long, give us a call. We can help talk you through the process and calm your nerves. Contact us too if you don’t have insurance or don’t think your insurance will cover an exam. We can connect you with a health care provider that offers free or reduced-fee mammograms and exams.

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