As many as 57% of female breast cancer survivors credit their early detection to self-awareness–either through self-examinations or by noticing changes in their bodies accidentally. So regularly checking your breasts for lumps is a proactive and important step toward safeguarding your breast health and longevity.
In this article, we’ll guide you through a detailed breast self-exam how-to, empowering you to take charge of your health and stay one step ahead in the battle against cancer.
Breast self-exam how-to: 5 steps to early breast cancer detection
Learning how to do your own breast exam is crucial for early cancer detection and treatment–and it’s easy to do. But it’s not just about glancing at and feeling your breasts.
The most effective self-exam covers more than just the breasts themselves. Here are five important steps for a better self-exam, according to breast cancer surgeon Dr. Laura Kruper from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida.
Step 1: Check for differences between your breasts
A comprehensive breast self-exam starts with both observing and feeling your breasts. To begin, stand or sit in front of a mirror without your clothes.
Inspect both breasts and watch for:
- Visible or tangible lumps or bumps
- Differences between breasts, such as lumps or bumps that occur on only one side
- Dimpling, indentations, or sunken areas in the breast tissue
- Skin changes, such as redness, scaliness, or anything else that seems unusual
- Nipple changes, such as scaliness or a new appearance of pulling inward
Step 2: Inspect again in different positions
Now look for similar changes in your breasts mentioned in Step 1, but with your hands on your hips while gently pushing your elbows forward.
This slight change in posture can help reveal lumps that might not be visible otherwise. Keep your hands on your hips and slowly swivel from side to side to inspect your breasts from various angles.
Next, lift your arms above your head. Notice if there’s any puckering or dimpling of the skin when you raise your arms. Dr. Kruper explains that when you elevate your arms, if there’s a mass present, it will stay in place, causing the skin to pull inward.
This step adds another dimension to your breast self-exam, helping you spot any potential irregularities.
Step 3: Lie down and use 3 fingers to check for lumps
Lie down comfortably with a pillow to support your head, and place one hand behind it.
With your opposite hand, use your index, middle, and ring fingers to press gently on the breast and surrounding areas. Start at the nipple and go outward, moving fingers in circular motions. Using three fingers–rather than just one–helps prevent mistaking normal breast tissue for lumps.
Gradually increase the pressure with each pass around the breasts to ensure you’re examining deeper tissue and not just the superficial layers. Then repeat on the opposite side.
Step 4: Examine the areas surrounding the breast
After examining your breasts, it’s crucial to inspect the surrounding areas, as well.
Still lying down, continue using the same three fingers in circular motions. Gradually increase the pressure as you move from the collarbone down to the sternum and beneath the breast.
From the lower part of the breast, continue upward towards your underarms to check for any swelling in the lymph nodes.
“What you’re looking for is something that stands out, something that feels like a pea, or a marble or a walnut,” Kruper says. “Something that definitely feels different than the surrounding breast tissue.”
Step 5: Repeat your breast self-exam the same time each month
Consistency is key, so try to do your self-exam at the same time every month. Dr. Kruper recommends doing it seven to 10 days after your menstrual cycle ends. This timing minimizes the chances of detecting cycle-related changes in breast tissue.
For postmenopausal women, Dr. Kruper says you can perform the exam at any time during the month–as long as you stick to the same time each month for consistency. By following these guidelines, you ensure a more accurate and reliable self-exam process.
The primary objective of this self-exam is to establish a baseline for what’s normal for your own body. Understanding how your breasts typically look and feel enables you to identify any deviations if they occur.
Do I really need to do a regular breast self-exam?
There’s an ongoing debate in the medical community regarding the effectiveness and importance of routine self-exams. Some experts have cited concerns about false positives and stated that self-exams don’t improve your chances of survival.
Even so, Dr. Kruper advises that everyone–especially those at higher risk–use self-exams as a way to become familiar with their breast tissue and practice early detection. Doing this monthly can help you detect changes that may indicate infection, breast diseases such as fibrosis or hyperplasia of the breast, or cancer.
“The most important thing about a breast self-examination is to know your breasts,” Dr. Kruper says. “Many women detect breast cancers or lumps themselves and that can be the beginning of an important conversation with your doctor.”