It's Never Too Early to Check for Breast Cancer: Tips for Self-Exams

Every year in the U.S., nearly a quarter million women are diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 women die of the disease according to data from the CDC. Worldwide, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, with about 2.1 million new cases diagnosed in 2018. While breast cancer can be fatal, many women can beat the disease — as long as the cancer is detected and treated early. Mammograms are the gold standard when it comes to identifying cancerous masses. But women can improve their odds of “catching” a lump or other unusual change early, simply by performing routine at-home exams on a regular basis. The key is to use the right techniques and to know just what types of changes you’re looking for.

Breast self-exams: The basics

No one knows your breasts like you do, and that means you're in the ideal position to spot changes in the way your breasts look or feel. To ensure your self-exam is as complete as possible, follow these simple tips:

Start with a visual exam

With your shirt and bra off, stand in front of a mirror with your hands and arms pressed against your hips. Now look carefully at your breasts and examine them for puckers, dimples, ridges or other changes. Examine the nipples for changes too. Next, raise your arms above your head, press your hands together and examine your breasts again. The change in position can make some changes more visible. Finally, lift your breasts and examine the undersides.

Move on to the manual exam

Use the pads of your fingers to examine your breasts for lumps and other changes. Take your time and gently palpate every area of each breast, all the way up to the armpit.

Lie down or stand up

The manual part of the exam can be performed while you’re lying in bed if you prefer; in fact, since lying on your back helps breast tissue spread out, it might be easier to notice unusual changes, like lumps or bulges. Some women perform exams in the shower, simply because it’s more convenient. That’s OK, too. Choosing the option that works best for you means you’ll be more likely to perform the exam on a regular basis.

Follow a pattern

Work outward from the nipple toward the outer breast regions and up to the armpit. Following the same pattern every time makes it easier to spot changes from one self-exam to the next and it also ensures you won’t skip an area.

Vary your pressure

Breast tissue is dense. Using different amounts of pressure when performing the manual part of the exam helps ensure you reach the deeper layers of tissue, as well as the more superficial layers.

Call the office if you notice any of these symptoms or changes during your self-exam:

One more note: Breast tissue can swell during certain parts of the menstrual cycle (especially ovulation). If you’re still having periods, examine your breasts at a time in your cycle when they’re least tender, typically during the week following your period.

Are you at risk for breast cancer?

Self-exams can be important, especially if you’re at increased risk for breast cancer, but they are no substitute for mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 45 for women with an average risk for breast cancer, with the option of having mammograms as early as age 40. At age 55, women may opt to have mammograms yearly or switch to every two years if they and their doctor prefer.

As a top provider of women's healthcare, Marsha Howerton, MD PC Obstetrics & Gynecology offers comprehensive breast care for women of all ages.  From clinical exams to mammograms and more, Dr. Howerton and her team can help you get the best care for your needs. If you're overdue for a mammogram or if you'd like to learn more about breast cancer risks and symptoms, book an appointment online today.

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