Self Breast Exams Do Save Lives

Approximately one in eight women will develop breast cancer, as will approximately one in 100 men. Advances are constantly being made in breast cancer research, making treatment more effective. No matter how far treatment advances, though, the most important step in treating breast cancer is early detection and diagnosis. Mammograms are the most effective way of diagnosing breast cancer, but many insurances do not cover an annual preventative mammogram for women under 40 and never for men. These insurance companies are likely to cover the cost of a mammogram if there is cause for suspicion of cancer. Approximately 40% of breast cancer diagnoses are made on individuals who noticed something abnormal during a self breast exam.

A self breast exam is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The patient examines his/her own breasts for any changes. Many different sources provide different routines for completing a self exam. This author has determined WebMD’s guide, linked in the references at the end of this article, to be the most thorough.  An extremely brief overview of this guide includes:

  1. Visual exam – Examine your breasts in the mirror, checking the color, shape, and size. Look at your nipples to make sure they look the same, ensuring that position has not altered and that the nipple has not become inverted. Look for any fluid coming out of the nipples. Do this in varying positions, such as looking straight at the mirror, then turning to view your body in profile.

  2. Lying Down – Lying flat on your back allows the breast tissue to distribute evenly and thin out, making it easier to feel any lumps or irregularities. Though the left breast is being used an example, start with whichever side you are more comfortable with. Raise your left arm, placing the left hand behind your head. Use your right hand to feel your left breast in a pattern – some people like to feel the breast tissue in a circular pattern, starting around the nipple and working out towards the armpit, while others prefer moving in straight lines up and down, working from the center of the chest to the armpit. As long as the entire area – from the collarbone to the top of the abdomen, from the cleavage to the armpit – is being covered fully, there is no wrong pattern.

  3. Standing or sitting – Following the same pattern used during the lying down exam, examine your breasts in a standing or sitting position. Many people find this easiest to do while in the shower, but this is not a requirement.

Contact your doctor if you notice any of the following at any point in your self exam:

  • An area that is noticeably different from the other areas in any way

  • A lump or thickening that does not change in correlation with the menstrual cycle

  • Any change in size or shape of the breast

  • A lump or mass that may feel “marble-like” and may be as small as a pea

  • A change in the appearance or feel of the skin

  • Any discharge from the nipple

  • Redness of the skin

Establishing a routine self exam procedure will help you become familiar with the normal feel of your breast tissue, making it easier to discover any abnormalities. Completing a thorough self exam once a month should be adequate to achieve these results.


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