Have you ever had a physician tell you to be sure you are performing regular breast self exams? Women often hear this and are afraid to ask detailed questions as to what their physician is referring to. Being aware of what you are feeling for and when to bring a specific area into question is important and often unknown. The following questions are frequently asked and can hopefully bring some clarification to this topic.
What is a breast self-exam?
When performing a breast self-examination you are checking your breasts for problems or noticeable changes. Often times, women are able to locate breast problems themselves rather than waiting for their annual exams. However, please note that choosing to carry out breast self-exams does not replace the need for clinical breast exams by a doctor or undergoing an annual mammogram! These steps are still necessary; self-exams can simply be beneficial for the time lapsing between appointments.
When should I perform a breast self-exam?
We have found that one week after your menstrual period begins is often the best time; this is when your breast tissue is least likely to be tender or swollen, which helps avoid a misdiagnosis. If you have an irregular menstrual cycle or you have recently experienced menopause, be sure to do your examination on a day of the month that’s easy for you to remember. Those that are pregnant or breast-feeding can continue to perform monthly breast exams. Waiting until after a feeding or after using a breast pump is best, as this will help to ensure breasts have as little milk as possible–which will make it easier and more comfortable for you. Checking your breasts while in the shower can be convenient, in addition to examining them while lying down. When standing in the shower, you can place one arm over your head and feel for any abnormal lumps or tenderness.
How do I perform a breast self exam?
Check your breasts for lumps or changes while standing and lying in different positions. Look at your breasts in a mirror so that you can note any changes in appearance. Using the pads of your three middle fingers, move your fingers slowly in small coin-sized circles to feel for changes. It is also important to use different levels of pressure when checking your breasts. Light pressure is best for feeling the tissue close to the surface, while a firmer pressure is used for feeling a little deeper than the surface. Use firm pressure to feel the tissue close to your breastbone and ribs. Using varying degrees of pressure will give you a more accurate sense of changes in your breast tissue. All of the tissue from the collarbone to the bra line and from the armpit to the breastbone needs to be examined.
I have breast implants, so am I risk free?
Breast implants do not make you risk free! Implants don’t decrease or eliminate the risk of having issues with breasts, changes, or even cancer. If you have breast implants be sure to talk specifically with your doctor about performing breast self exams, as you may need additional advice.
What if I’m unsure if a lump or thick area is unusual?
Most breast tissue has some lumps or thick tissue so when in doubt–check your other breast. If you feel the same kind of lump on the other breast, both breasts are probably normal. You should pay attention to lumps that feel much harder than the rest of your breast. Please note that it never hurts to share your findings with your physician!
Changes or unusual conditions that may appear:
- Any new lump that has appeared, which may or may not be painful to touch.
- Unusually thick areas.
- Sticky or bloody discharge from your nipples.
- Any changes in the texture of the skin or nipples such as puckering or dimpling.
- An unusual increase in the size of one breast.
- One breast unusually lower than the other.
What should I do if I find a lump or thick area, or notice a change?
If you become concerned about a lump or thick area that you have found, a change in appearance, or any other unusual conditions, then you should give us a call so the area can be further examined. Breast lumps can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign), but it’s important to have any problems or changes evaluated by a doctor.
With this information in mind, be sure to add monthly breast exams to your routine. Women can often catch problematic areas on their own, which assists us in catching and addressing any health issues early!