Breast Self-Examination

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One of the easiest ways to care for your breasts is by doing regular breast self-exams. When you understand how your breasts normally look and feel, also called breast awareness, you know when something changes.

Breast self-exams do not take the place of your annual mammogram. They only help you monitor your breast health in between visits to your imaging center.

When to Do a Self-Exam

The best time to examine your breasts is about one week after your period starts, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen or tender. If you no longer have a period, or if your menstrual cycle is irregular, choose the same day every month to do your exam.

How to Do a Self-Exam

When doing your breast self-exam, use three different levels of pressure to make sure you feel all of your breast tissue.

  • Light pressure – Feel the tissue closest to the skin’s surface
  • Medium pressure – Feel the tissue that’s a little deeper than the skin’s surface
  • Firm pressure – Feel the tissue that’s close to your breastbone and ribs.

To check all of the tissue, move your fingers from your collarbone to the bottom of your bra line, then from your armpit to the breastbone.

Lying Down

  • Remove your top and bra and lie down.
  • Using the pads of your three middle fingers, move your hand slowly and gently in small circles around each breast. Follow either an up-and-down or spiral pattern.
  • Feel for lumps or other changes.
  • Try not to lift your fingers away from the skin.
  • Check your right breast with your left hand and your left breast with your right hand.

In the Shower

  • While standing, place one arm over your head and lightly soap your breast on the same side.
  • Using the pads of your three middle fingers, move your fingers slowly and gently in small circles around each breast. Follow either an up-and-down or spiral pattern.
  • Feel for lumps or other changes.
  • Try not to lift your fingers away from the skin.

If you think you feel a lump in one breast, check the other. If you find a similar lump in the same area, it’s likely your breasts are normal.

Causes of Breast Lumps

Fortunately, cancer is not the cause of most breast concerns or changes. Common causes of breast lumps include:

  • Cysts
  • Fibroadenoma
  • Fibrocystic breasts
  • Intraductal papilloma (a milk duct growth)
  • Lipoma (a slow-growing fatty mass that is typically harmless)
  • Mastitis (a breast tissue infection that often affects women who are breastfeeding)
  • Milk cyst (a harmless milk-filled cyst)
  • Trauma or injury

When to Call the Doctor

Once you know what’s normal for your breasts, call your doctor if you notice any changes, including:

Changes in your breasts’ skin or nipples, such as puckering or dimpling

  • New lumps that may or may not be painful to touch
  • One breast appearing lower than the other.
  • Sticky or bloody nipple discharge
  • An unusual increase in the size of one breast
  • Unusual thick areas