Putting Your Breast Self Forward: The Importance of Regular Breast Self-Exams

If you are a person with breasts, breast self-exams and regular clinical exams are vital to maintaining a proactive approach to your health. Familiarizing yourself with the normal look and feel of your breasts can help you identify several issues, including breast cancer. Regular clinical exams and mammograms are an important complement to self-examination, as your doctor will have additional knowledge and tools to help identify any serious issues.

Breast Self-Exams

For adult women of any age, it’s recommended that you perform a breast self-exam once a month, about 3-5 days after your period starts. If you have gone through menopause, it is advised that you perform your self-exam on the same day every month. Breast exams can be performed in the shower, lying down, or in front of a mirror. Typically, lying down is preferred because the breast tissue spreads out, making it thinner and easier to feel any changes.

When performing a breast self-exam, make sure to use the pads (not the tips) of your three middle fingers. Raise your right hand and place it behind your head while using your left hand to examine the right breast. In small circular motions, feel around the entirety of your breast, and into the armpit. Start with light pressure, and then repeat twice with medium, and then firm pressure. The varying degrees of pressure will help you reach different layers of breast tissue. Repeat the same routine on your left breast, with your left arm raised behind your head. It is important to squeeze and apply pressure to the nipples as well.

Here are some changes to look for:

  • Lumps or hard knots
  • Changes and differences in breast size
  • Dimpling or puckering of the breast
  • Redness or scaliness of the breast skin and/or nipple
  • Inverted nipple
  • Discharge from the nipple

If you notice any of these changes, it is important to contact your doctor. However, detecting changes during your self-examination is no reason to panic. Breasts often feel and look different throughout various points of the menstrual cycle, and can change as you age. In the event that there is an issue, early detection is key to successful treatment. Take notes on what you notice, and share your findings and concerns with your doctor. They will most likely recommend additional testing, clinical examination, breast ultrasound, and/or mammogram.

Medical Breast Exams

It is recommended that women of reproductive age get regular clinical breast exams, which are usually performed in conjunction with a gynecological check-up. Similar to your self-exam, your doctor will feel around your breast and look for lumps, differences in size and shape between the breasts, rashes, dimpling, and other abnormalities. They will also check your underarm, collarbone area, and lymph nodes near the breast.

For women 40 or over, biannual mammograms to screen for breast cancer are recommended. If you are younger than 40, you may want to talk to your doctor about an appropriate cadence for screenings based on your risk factors and family history. Mammograms use X-ray technology to visualize the tissue inside the breast. Often, they can detect precancerous cells or other conditions before lumps and/or other symptoms appear.

If the clinical breast exam and/or mammogram reveals an abnormality, your doctor may order additional tests such as ultrasound or MRI to get better imaging of the breast tissue. Using the detailed imaging your doctor and a radiologist will decide whether a biopsy is needed. Biopsies involve removing a small portion of the abnormal breast tissue, which is taken to a lab to determine whether the cells are cancerous.

Importance of Breast Monitoring

More often than not, lumps and other changes are benign. However, if breast cancer and other reproductive illnesses run in your family, it is important to take any indications seriously. When detected early, the 5-year relative survival rate of breast cancer is 99%, and 85% at 10 years. Additionally, regular examinations can help you identify what is normal for your body and breasts, which can help avoid false diagnoses and medical scares. If you would like more information on how to conduct a self-exam or are concerned about your breast health, contact Pacific Women's OB/GYN Medical Group.

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