Early Breast Cancer Detection Saves Lives
Breast cancer is the least dangerous when it’s detected early, and the best early detection method is to have mammograms performed according to schedule. The recommended frequency for mammograms varies based on your age and specific risk factors — speak to your health care provider to see how often you need to have a mammogram performed.
In addition to regular mammograms, you can contribute to early detection efforts by being performing a breast examination at home once per month. Below, you'll learn how to perform a self breast examination and what signs to be looking for.
Please note that breast self-exams often discover changes that are benign (non-cancerous). If you discover an irregularity during your monthly self-examination, speak with your doctor. If they feel that additional screening is necessary, they will likely order a mammogram. About 90% of mammograms come back benign. If a mammogram alone cannot determine if an irregularity is benign or not, additional testing such as an ultrasound, an MRI, or a biopsy may be ordered.
How to Perform a Breast Examination at Home
It’s recommended to perform self-breast examinations at least once per month. When you are familiar with your body, it’s easier for you to tell when something has changed or shifted. The following are three common ways you can perform a breast exam at home.
1. While Lying Down
When you lie down on your back, your breast tissue spreads out evenly along the muscles of your chest wall. Lie back on a pillow and tuck your right arm behind your head. With your left hand, apply gentle pressure both on and around your right breast area, including your armpit.
TIP: Use the pads of your fingers rather than just your fingertips
Use light, medium, and firm pressure during the self-examination. Squeeze your nipple as well, checking for discharge and lumps. Once you’re done, repeat the above steps for your left breast.
2. In the Shower
Use the flats/pads of your 3 middle fingers (index, middle, and ring), to palpate all around your breast and armpit areas. Palpation just means using light, medium, and firm levels of pressure to examine the area through touch. Check for any lumps, thickening tissue, or hard knots.
3. In Front of a Mirror
First, inspect your breasts visually with your arms flat at your sides. Next, raise your right arm above your head and inspect the right breast. Repeat this step with the left arm. Lastly, raise both arms high overhead and do a visual inspection.
Visually examine your breasts for any changes in the contour of your breast tissue. In particular, look for any deep pitting of the skin or dimpling.
Finally, place your hands on your hips and flex your chest muscles. Look for any significant differences between the shape and contour of your breasts. They likely won’t be identical, it’s perfectly normal for each breast to be a little different from the other. What you’re looking for here is any dimpling, puckering, or differences in size and shape that are different than what you’re used to seeing.
Abnormal Breast Exam Findings
If you discover any of the following during your at-home breast exam, you should discuss your findings with your regular medical provider. It’s important to know that not every one of these signs is exclusive to breast cancer, so there is no need to panic. There can be a great number of reasons for the tissues of the breast to change, both throughout your monthly hormonal cycle and as you age. Still, you should always bring up any concerns or changes about your breast health with your medical provider and discuss whether or not additional screening is recommended.
Changes In How The Breast Or Nipple Feels
- Nipple tenderness or thickening lumps beneath the nipple(s).
- Unexplained discharge from the nipple(s).
- Development of lumps or thickening tissues in the breast(s) or underarm area(s).
- A lump in the breast or armpit area(s). Please note that ALL breast lumps should be inspected by a healthcare professional, but not all breast lumps are caused by cancer.
- Pain in the tissue of the breasts, areolas, or nipples — many people experience discomfort in the breasts due to premenstrual syndrome. Persistent or abnormal (to you) breast pains should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
Changes in the Appearance of Breasts or Nipples
- New asymmetry of the breasts. It is perfectly common for the breasts to be of slightly different sizes or have somewhat different contours. However, if there is a new change in the symmetry of the breasts, it should be evaluated by a medical professional.
- Unexplained changes in the size or shape of the breast (especially if only on one side).
- Unexplained swelling or shrinking of the breast (especially if only on one side).
- Nipple(s) becoming “inverted” by turning slightly inward.
- Change in the skin texture, or enlargement of the pores (commonly called “peau d’orange,” or “skin of an orange.”) Just as the name suggests, “peau d’orange” the skin to have a texture and appearance that is similar to the skin of an orange. It can have a large number of causes, including some forms of inflammatory breast cancer. Not all skin dimpling is caused by cancer. Cellulite can commonly cause patches of dimples in the skin. All the same, if you notice a change in the skin texture of your breasts, it should be investigated by a healthcare professional.