A breast self-examination (BSE) involves checking your breasts to help detect breast problems or changes. Many breast problems are first discovered by women themselves, often by accident. Breast lumps can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is most common in women older than 50.
Many experts believe that the harms of breast self-examination outweigh the benefits. Others consider BSE an option for women. Talk with your doctor about breast self-examination.
A breast self-examination involves checking your breasts for lumps or changes while standing and lying in different positions and while looking at your breasts in a mirror to note any changes in their appearance. Once you know what your breasts normally look and feel like, any new lump or change in appearance should be evaluated by a doctor. Most breast problems or changes are not because of cancer.
If you choose to do breast self-examinations, this should not replace regular clinical breast examinations (CBE) by a doctor and mammograms. Breast implants do not decrease a woman's risk for breast cancer, so women with breast implants need to talk with their doctors about performing breast self-examinations.
Why It Is Done
A breast self-examination is done to detect breast problems, such as a lump or change in appearance, that may indicate breast cancer or other breast conditions that may require medical attention (such as mastitis or a fibroadenoma).
How To Prepare
No special preparation is needed before having this test.
How It Is Done
It takes practice to perform a thorough breast self-examination. Ask your doctor for tips that can help you perform a breast self-examination correctly.
The best time to examine your breasts is usually one week after your menstrual period begins, when your breast tissue is least likely to be swollen or tender. If your menstrual cycle is irregular, or if you have stopped menstruating due to menopause or the removal of your uterus (hysterectomy), do your examination on a day of the month that's easy to remember. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding can continue to examine their breasts every month. Breast-feeding mothers can examine their breasts after a feeding or after using a breast pump so that the breasts have as little milk as possible, making the examination easier and more comfortable.
To do a breast self-examination, remove all your clothes above the waist and lie down. The examination is done while lying down so your breast tissue spreads evenly over your chest wall and is as thin as possible, making it much easier to feel all your breast tissue.
Use the pads of the three middle fingers of your left hand—not your fingertips—to check your right breast. Move your fingers slowly in small coin-sized circles.
Use three different levels of pressure to feel all of your breast tissue. Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue close to the skin surface. Medium pressure is used to feel a little deeper, and firm pressure is used to feel your tissue close to your breastbone and ribs. A firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast is normal. Use each pressure level to feel your breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
Check your entire breast using a lengthwise strip pattern. Feel all of the tissue from the collarbone to the bra line and from the armpit to the breastbone. Start in the armpit and work down to the bottom of the bra line. Move one finger-width toward the middle and work up to the collarbone. Repeat until you have covered the entire breast. Repeat this procedure for your left breast. See a picture of BSE using an up-and-down pattern.
You also can examine your breasts using a spiral pattern. Again, use three different levels of pressure to examine all your breast tissue. Avoid lifting your fingers away from the skin as you feel for lumps, unusual thicknesses, or changes of any kind. See a picture of BSE using a spiral pattern.
Most breast tissue has some lumps or thick tissue. When in doubt about a particular lump, check your other breast. If you find the same kind of lump in the same area on the other breast, both breasts are probably normal. Pay attention to any lump that feels much harder than the rest of your breast.
If you find anything that concerns you, schedule a visit with your doctor. The important thing is to learn what is normal for you and to report any changes to your doctor. Remember that most changes you find are not breast cancer but should be checked. These changes may include:
In addition to examining your breasts while lying down, you may also check them while in the shower. Soapy fingers slide easily across the breast and may increase your chances of detecting a change. While standing in a shower, place one arm over your head and lightly soap your breast on that side. Then, using the flat surface of your fingers—not the fingertips—gently move your hand over your breast (in the strip pattern described above), feeling carefully for any lumps or thickened areas.
How It Feels
A breast self-examination (BSE) normally does not cause any discomfort. If your breasts are tender because your menstrual period is about to begin, a BSE may cause slight discomfort when you press on your breasts to feel for lumps.
The risk of doing breast self-examination is that you find a breast change that makes you anxious and may lead to unnecessary tests (such as a biopsy) but that turns out not to be cancer.
A breast self-examination (BSE) involves checking your breasts to help detect breast problems or changes.
If you find a lump or other unusual change, make an appointment with your doctor to have it checked. Be prepared to describe whether the lump is hard or soft and whether it moves easily under the skin. If your doctor does a clinical breast examination (CBE), he or she may recommend that you watch for changes and reexamine the breast in several weeks, sometimes waiting until after your next menstrual cycle. More testing, such as a mammogram, a breast biopsy, or an attempt to remove fluid from inside (aspirate) the lump, may also be done. The lump is a cyst if the fluid inside is not bloody and if the lump disappears after aspiration.
What Affects the Test
Reasons why the results may not be helpful include:
What To Think About
Other Places To Get Help
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