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In the fight against breast cancer, early detection is the most effective weapon, and breast self-exams are a key part. By empowering a woman to proactively monitor her breasts, regular self-exams can increase the likelihood that she will detect a breast tumor early, when there are generally more treatment options available. While not intended to be a substitute for clinical breast cancer screening exams or routine mammograms, monthly self-exams can help a woman become familiar with the normal look and feel of her breasts, making it easier for her to notice any unusual changes right away.

Starting at age 40, average risk individuals should have yearly breast screenings. A Moffitt mammogram is the gold standard in Tampa and is available to all - no referral needed.
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What does a breast self-exam involve?

Typically done once per month at home, a breast self-exam involves a physical and visual examination of the breast tissue. Each exam takes only a few minutes to complete and can be easily performed while a woman is showering, dressing in the morning or undressing in the evening.

What is the best time of the month to perform a breast self-exam?

Before menopause, many women have fluctuating hormone levels that can cause breast swelling and tenderness to develop at various times during their menstrual cycle. For this reason, the best and most comfortable time for a pre-menopausal woman to perform a breast self-exam is approximately three to five days after the onset of her monthly menstrual period.

What can be found during a breast self-exam?   

Monthly breast self-exams can increase the likelihood that a woman will notice any unusual changes or abnormalities in her breast tissue soon after they develop, even if the changes are subtle. These include early warning signs of breast cancer, such as:

  • A lump – A new mass that can be felt in the breast tissue
  • A change in the texture of a breast – A thickened area that feels different from the surrounding tissue
  • Breast asymmetry – A sudden change in the size, shape or volume of one breast that makes it look markedly different than the other breast
  • A change in the appearance of the breast skin – Dimpling, pitting, puckering or redness
  • A change in a nipple – A newly inverted nipple or unusual discharge (other than breastmilk)
  • Tenderness – Pain or discomfort in a breast or armpit

The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump. However, breast lumps are very common and the vast majority are noncancerous. Therefore, there is no need for a woman to panic if she discovers a lump or another abnormality while performing a breast self-exam. Instead, she should promptly discuss her findings with a physician who can provide a thorough evaluation and accurate diagnosis.

How to perform a breast self-exam

To perform a monthly breast self-exam, a woman can follow this simple, three-step guide:

Step 1: How to visually examine your breasts

  • Remove your upper garments, including your bra.
  • Stand squarely in front of a large mirror and place your hands on your hips.
  • Look at your breasts to check for new changes in their symmetry, size, shape or volume.
  • Look at your breast skin to check for dimpling, pitting, puckering or redness.
  • Look at your nipples to check for new changes in their appearance, such as inversion or unusual discharge.
  • Lift both arms over your head and repeat the visual inspection of your breasts.

Step 2: How to manually examine your breasts while standing

  • Remain standing in front of the mirror.
  • Use your right hand to check your left breast.
  • Use the pads of your three middle fingers to feel your breast tissue by firmly pressing on every part of your breast and underarm area; follow a circular pattern to ensure that no area is missed.
  • Check for lumps, masses, thickened areas, knots and changes in texture.
  • Gently squeeze your nipple to check for unusual discharge.
  • Repeat the manual inspection using your left hand to check your right breast.

Step 3: How to manually examine your breasts while lying down

  • Lie face up on a bed or couch, place a pillow under your left shoulder and place your left hand behind your head.
  • Use your right hand to check your left breast using the same techniques outlined in step 2.
  • Repeat the manual inspection while lying down using your left hand to check your right breast.

Are breast self-exams effective?

Woman performing self breast exam

Researchers estimate that up to 40% of breast cancers are initially detected by a woman who felt a lump while performing a breast self-exam. Even so, the effectiveness of breast self-exams as a standalone screening method for breast cancer is subject to debate within the general medical community. Self-exams are not foolproof, and many breast cancers are found through other methods, such as mammography.

Due to concerns about potential false positives and false negatives, the American Cancer Society does not recommend breast self-exams as the primary breast cancer screening tool. To ensure a comprehensive approach to breast cancer detection, most experts encourage women to perform monthly breast self-exams in addition to the breast cancer screening tests recommended by their physician.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

If you have questions after performing a breast self-exam, you can request an appointment for a screening with a specialist in Moffitt’s Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program by calling 1-888-663-3488  or submitting a new patient registration form online. No referral is needed. After evaluating your medical history and risk profile, we can suggest an individualized breast cancer screening plan for you.

Tiffany smiling at the camera, is a woman who learned how to do a breast self exam.

Tiffany remembers learning about the importance of breast self-exams when she was in high school. It was a healthy habit she adopted early.  Some 20 years later it saved her life. 

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