Working on that amazing breastfeeding facts post really got me thinking about breast cancer and I wondered how many women skip out on their breast self-exams. I want to briefly discuss at-home breast self-exams in an effort to remind and encourage you to stay on top of your own and to remind the women in your circle. It’s something that’s really easy to do, but I know many of us still have not made a regular habit of it.
First, it’s important to note that there has been some debate in the medical community about breast self-exams. Research has not found them to be effective at reducing breast cancer mortalities and in some cases, they have led to harm in the form of unnecessary biopsies and other procedures. As always, consult with your doctor first. My OB/GYN still recommends that I do breast self-exams, as does the America Breast Cancer Foundation. You can also have your OB/GYN confirm that your technique is correct. I think it’s really important that all women be informed on the practice, to become familiar with their breasts, especially if you do not visit a gynecologist annually. Now, let’s go over the why, when, and how of the breast self-exam.
Why are breast self-exams encourage?
- To increase the likelihood of early detection of breast cancer
- To become familiar enough with your breasts to spot any changes as soon as possible
When is the best time to give yourself a breast self-exam?
- At least once a month
- A few days after your menstrual cycle, because the breasts change during ovulation and menstruation.
- If you are pregnant, no longer have periods, or have an irregular period choose a specific time each month to do it.
How to give yourself a breast self-exam?
- Look at them in the mirror with your hands on your hips, then with your arms raised.
- Lie down. Place a pillow under the shoulder of the breast you will be examining and lift your arm on that side. Take two to three fingers held together from the opposite side and carefully rub in small circles throughout the entire breast (perhaps starting with a circle around the nipple and then circling outwards until you have examined the entire breast or up and down like a lawn mower). Be sure to cover the entire breast from side to side (your armpit to your cleavage) and from top to bottom (your collarbone to your abdomen). Increase your finger pressure with the amount of tissue in the area of the breast. Gently squeeze the nipple. Switch and repeat on the opposite breast.
- Do the same exam as above, standing with your arm held up. Many women do this in the shower. My mom used to keep a breast self-exam info-graphic in the shower as a reminder (here’s one for 79 cents, if you’re interested).
What are you looking for in a breast self-exam?
- Lumps, thickened or hard knots
- Discharge or blood. If you are breastfeeding, you may leak milk but that’s normal.
- Visual swelling or dimpling of the skin
- Alterations in the nipple
- Unfamiliar changes
Now, maybe you’re like me and you get the heebie jeebies when you start examining your breast, just at the thought of finding something. If that’s the case, ask your partner to examine your breasts for you. If you don’t have a partner, ask a good girlfriend to do it for you or hold your hand while you do it yourself. That may sound extreme to you, but hey, that’s what friends are for. Just make sure you face your fears, stop putting it off, and get it done. Also be sure that your gynecologist gives you a breast exam at your annual pap smear.
If you find anything alarming or even slightly concerning in your exam, do not hesitate to call your doctor. A lump does not necessarily mean breast cancer; 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous. Still, reach out to your doctor to ensure everything is alright.
We only get one body to go through this life, so it’s important that we take good care of it. As always, I hope you found this post helpful. Be sure to share it with the women in your life as a loving reminder.