Breast self-examination and clinical breast examination are the oldest methods that have been used to detect breast cancer and other breast problems. In the last 50 years, the use of X-ray mammography and recently other imaging techniques have added significantly to the early detection of breast cancer.
In general, an increase in awareness of changes in our bodies results in better health and increased compliance with physician recommendations. Breast self-examination continues to play a pivotal role in the detection of breast tumors.
The breast tissue usually reaches a mature state in the late teens and early 20s. That is when it is important that women begin self-exams. You can – and should – play an active role in your breast health by getting to know your body and following these important recommendations.
Women should be taught how to perform breast self-exams by their doctor. I encourage patients to perform these self-exams on a monthly basis, ideally at the end of the menstrual period. Using this time of month allows the breast tissue to be more consistent in how it looks and feels, which makes it easier for women to recognize any changes or abnormalities.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most effective way to perform breast self-examinations is while lying down on your back. In this position, the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it easier to feel all the breast tissue.
Place your right arm behind your head and use the finger pads on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast by doing dime-sized circular motions to feel the breast tissue. Use three different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue – light pressure to feel the tissue closest to the skin, medium pressure to feel a little deeper and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs. Move around the breast in an up and down pattern, from the underarm to the middle of the chest bone and up and down from the collar bone to the ribs.
Then, repeat the exam on your left breast, raising your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to feel your breast tissue.
The American Cancer Society also recommends that women stand in front of a mirror, with their hands pressed on their hips, and look at your breasts for any changes in size, shape, contour, dimpling, redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin. Women should also examine each underarm for lumps by slightly raising it so you can easily feel the area.
These procedures for doing breast self-exams have changed slightly from past recommendations, as evidence has shown that these techniques have increased a woman’s ability to find abnormalities.
If you notice a lump or change in the breast that is persistent over one or two menstrual cycles, schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases, such as your primary care physician or OB/GYN.
Don’t panic, but don’t ignore it. Most lumps found in the breast are benign, meaning they are not cancerous. Still, all lumps should be investigated in a timely manner.
Your physician may order imaging studies, such as a mammogram or ultrasound examination, or elect to follow the problem clinically.
For more information on Jackson Health System’s breast health services or to make an appointment for a mammogram, call 305-585-6000. For information on breast self-examinations, including diagrams on how to do them, visit the American Cancer Society online at cancer.org