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How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women. It’s important to understand your risk and understand your unique risk as well as knowing how to perform a breast self-exam each month to stay safe.

Around one in eight women and one in 833 men will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer is the second most fatal type of cancer for women in the United States, next to lung cancer. It’s important to assess your personal risk of breast cancer, as it can be hereditary. Be familiar with what is normal for your body and continue giving yourself a breast exam each month to be safe.

We talked with Dr. Kristin BrillHelen Nichter, advanced practical nurse (APN), and Stacie Cipparone, licensed practical nurse (LPN) of Jefferson Breast Care Center, to explain the importance of breast self-exams and the best ways to perform one.

What is a breast self-exam?

A breast self-exam is something that anyone can perform in the privacy of their own home to check to see if there are any abnormalities in their body. Helen Nichter reminds us that all bodies are different, and it is important to understand what is normal for your body and to know when there are any changes.

Dr. Kristin Brill recommends that anyone over the age of 25 begins to give themselves a monthly breast self-exam. Because both men and women are susceptible to breast cancer, both should be completing self-exams. These are best to perform in the shower, as water can help to guide your hands. Another option is to do your exam while looking in the mirror. For women, your breast exams should be a week after your menstrual cycle. If you feel an abnormality pre-period or during your period, it may just be a cyst or some swollen tissue. In addition, your breasts may feel fuller, firmer, and denser as a response to your hormone cycle. However, if you notice any changes or feel a lump that persists post-period, make an appointment to get it checked out.

How do you give a breast self-exam?

When doing a self-breast exam, you want to feel for any types of lumps, bumps, or anything that feels abnormal to you. “Take your hands and start gently gliding your fingers across your breast tissue, beginning in the upper outer quadrants, and heading towards the nipple,” explains Nichter. “You’ll check the opposite breast using the same motion. Look for any nipple retractions, subtle changes, and feel for any masses.”

Cipparone adds that it’s important to check your armpit by raising your arm and gently guiding your fingers from your armpit to the outer portion of your breast. Do this on both sides.

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What are the next steps if you do find something?

If you find something that feels irregular, do not stress. “Not all bumps or lumps are cancerous; some are cysts,” says Nichter. She recommends that you contact your primary care provider or schedule an appointment with a breast specialist if you believe that you found something. They will examine further and pursue imaging, like an ultrasound, to help identify the mass.

While breast self-exams are an important monthly routine, one shouldn’t rely on this alone for their breast health. Dr. Brill recommends a baseline mammogram starting at age 35, and if the results are normal, wait until age 40 to receive a mammogram annually. If there is a family history, speak with your doctor about what age to start receiving mammograms. For more information on mammograms, read our story on 10 Things to Know About Mammograms.

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