According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in American women. One in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. That's not a statistic to take lightly. That's why in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, we're helping raise awareness by spreading the word on self-breast exams.
We understand that the mere thought of checking your breast for lumps can be a bit daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Think of it as a regular self-care ritual that helps you get to know your breasts better, so if something new shows up or changes, you're more likely to notice it before your next doctor's appointment.
To help educate us on self-breast exams, we chatted with two doctors who are experts on the matter. Keep reading to learn the step-by-step process for checking your breasts for lumps and when and how often you should do it.
How to check your breasts for lumps
1. Check yourself out in the mirror
Before you start to feel for lumps, Dr. Krystina Tongson, a board-certified breast surgeon in New York, recommends taking a moment to look at yourself in the mirror first. Part of a self-breast exam is not just feeling for lumps but also noting any new findings such as asymmetry, nipple inversion, skin changes, redness, flaking nipples, dimpling skin, or nipple discharge (especially if the discharge is brown or red).
2. Get into position
Next, get yourself into the proper position for the self-breast exam. "Positioning is important because our ribs can distort our breasts," Dr. Tongson says. "I suggest doing your exam seated and then again while lying down. Also, be sure to raise your arm as you do it. Raising your arm displaces your muscle so you can feel the tissue better." This is typically how it's done at a doctor's office.
3. Follow a pattern as you feel for lumps
When you're examining your breasts for lumps, try to follow a pattern. "Whether you start at your nipple and work your way around in a spiral or up and down left to right, stick to it so you don't miss a spot," Dr. Tongson says.
So what exactly are you looking for? Dr. Tongson says to pay attention to anything that feels irregular, hard, fixed, not mobile, or growing. If you notice any abnormalities or changes, that warrants a formal exam with your doctor so book an appointment as soon as possible. Dr. Tongson also reminds us to be our own advocate when it comes to our health. "Yes, doctors have been fully trained about the human body, but this is your body, and you know it best," she says.
4. How often you should do a self-breast exam
Checking your breasts for lumps once per month is plenty, Dr. Tongson says. If you're over-ambitious though, you can do it twice a month: once right before your period and again the week after to see if there were any changes.
Dr. Tongson says that the key is to do it at the same time every month because our breasts will change as we go through our menstrual cycle. The trending social media #feelitonthefirst is a great reminder to do it on the first of every month.
All that said, note that the purpose of regular self-breast exams is not to instill fear. That's why Dr. Tiffany Woodus, MD, FACOG, says breast self-examinations focused on the goal of detecting breast cancer is no longer recommended by the American Cancer Society or the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for the average risk woman.
The reason, Dr. Woodus adds, is because it can lead to an increased harm risk from false-positive test results. In other words, some women may identify a potential problem and then undergo procedures that come with risks only to find out they were fine.
If regular self-breast exams cause you to lean into fear, then simply focus on educating yourself on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, including pain, appearance of a mass, skin changes like dimpling or retractions, redness, or nipple discharge. And practice cultivating breast self-awareness, which Dr. Woodus describes as being aware of how your breasts normally look and feel, so if something changes, you can notify your doctor.