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Breast Self-Examination - Topic Overview

What is a breast self-exam?

A breast self-exam involves checking your breasts for lumps or changes. Many breast problems are first discovered by women themselves, often by accident. Breast lumps can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).

Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is most common in women older than 50. Lumps or changes also may be signs of other breast conditions, such as mastitis or a fibroadenoma.

Medical experts don't recommend regular breast self-examinations.1 Studies show that self-exams don't save women's lives and that they can lead to unneeded tests, such as biopsies. But some experts believe that women should know how their breasts look and feel (breast self-awareness) so any breast changes can be reported to a doctor.2

How do you perform a breast self-exam?

The best time to examine your breasts is usually 1 week after your menstrual period starts, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen or tender. Examining your breasts at other times in your menstrual cycle may make it hard to compare results of one exam with another.

If your menstrual cycle is irregular, or if you have stopped menstruating due to menopause or the removal of your uterus (hysterectomy), do your examination on a day of the month that's easy to remember.

If you are breast-feeding, try doing your breast exams after a feeding or after using a breast pump. The breasts should have as little milk as possible, so the exam will be easier and more comfortable.

A breast self-exam normally doesn't cause any discomfort. If your breasts are tender because your menstrual period is about to begin, you may feel slight discomfort when you press on your breasts.

To do a breast self-exam:

  1. Remove all your clothes above the waist. Lie down. Lying down spreads your breasts evenly over your chest and makes it easier to feel lumps or changes. Check your entire breast by feeling all of the tissue from the collarbone to the bottom of the bra line and from the armpit to the breastbone.
  2. Use the pads of your three middle fingers—not your fingertips. Use the middle fingers of your left hand to check your right breast. Use the middle fingers of your right hand to check your left breast. You can use an up-and-down pattern camera.gif or a spiral pattern camera.gif. Move your fingers slowly in small coin-sized circles.
  3. Use three different levels of pressure to feel all of your breast tissue. Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue close to the skin surface. Medium pressure is used to feel a little deeper, and firm pressure is used to feel your tissue close to your breastbone and ribs. Avoid lifting your fingers away from the skin as you feel for lumps, unusual thicknesses, or changes of any kind.
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