Breast Self-Exams Should Be a Monthly Priority for Each Woman

Self-examinations help women remain vigilant throughout the year 

DAYTON, Ohio (October 1, 2015) – Major health organizations agree that yearly mammograms save lives, however, women need to know that a significant portion of the disease is caught by the self-examinations that take place within their own home.

Monthly self-breast exams should play an important role in a woman’s ongoing healthcare. After all, a woman can be the best judge as to whether her breasts have undergone any noticeable changes, says Mercedes Palmisano, MD, a Premier Health Specialists OB/Gyn physician practicing at Miami Valley Women’s Health.

Studies have shown that up to 25 percent of breast cancer cases originate from breast self-examinations (BSE). Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center found that number could be as high as 40 percent. Technological advances in mammography continue to improve breast cancer detection in its earliest stages, but it’s just one tool that helps reduce a woman’s risk of developing the disease.

“A breast self-exam helps a woman remain vigilant during the 11 months between each mammogram,” Dr. Palmisano says. “Self-exams are an easy way for women to check for any noticeable changes and report them to her physician. Women can conduct self-exams regardless of her life stage or lifestyle. Exams can be done while a woman is pregnant or nursing and even if she has had implants.”

There are many ways a woman can conduct a BSE, but Dr. Palmisano encourages women to find an approach that makes them feel the most comfortable. 

“Sometimes, women are so concerned about doing it right that they can become too stressed or overwhelmed to even attempt an exam on their own,” Dr. Palmisano says. “Women need to remember that the goal, with or without a systematic approach to a BSE, is to report any changes to their breasts to their doctor.”

Women are encouraged to begin a BSE in their 20s. Those who choose to conduct a BSE should consider having their technique reviewed during their annual visit with their gynecologist. Women should understand the signals or signs that would indicate they need further examination. These include: development of a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk (such as staining of bed sheets or bra), the American Cancer Society said.

Leading breast cancer organizations have created a five-step process [Link to] that women can follow or use as a starting point to conduct a BSE. 

Step 1: Begin by examining your breasts in a mirror. Face the mirror with hands on your hips and shoulders straight. Look for any visible changes in your breasts such as size, shape and color. Also, look for any of the signs that were previously mentioned.

Step 2: Raise your arms and look for the same changes.

Step 3: Still facing a mirror, look for any fluid coming out of one or both breasts.

Step 4: Lie down on a bed and feel your breasts. Use your right hand to examine your left breast and your left hand to examine your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand. You can examine your breast by using circular motions the size of a quarter or some women find it easy to go up and down vertically as if they were mowing a lawn. Be sure to feel the entire breast – from the front to the back and gradually apply more pressure until you feel the deepest tissue and eventually your rib cage.

Step 5: Feel your breast while standing up using the same methods as applied in Step 4. Some women find it easiest to do this when their skin is slippery and wet, which is why it is often recommended that women examine their breasts in the shower.

Women who do suspect a change in their breasts should contact their doctor right away, but should not panic. A lump or change in a breast is not always a sign of breast cancer. In the United States, 20 percent of suspicious lumps that are biopsied turn out to be breast cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There are many other causes for changes in a woman’s breast including infection, trauma, fibroadenoma, cyst or fibrocystic conditions. 

“Whether it is a yearly mammogram or a monthly self-exam, I encourage women to make it a priority and not allow fear to stop them from having it done,” Dr. Palmisano says. “Most women lead busy lives and are in the habit of putting others around them first. That’s why I always suggest they choose one time of the month that will be easy for them to remember to conduct their exam. For many, that is right after their menstrual cycle.”

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