“Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.” Johns Hopkins Medical Center
When you hear a new noise while driving down the road or feel even the slightest vibration that wasn’t there the last time, you know there is something going on with your car. We spend so much time in our vehicles that they feel like an extension of our bodies, and we can feel when something is different. The sad thing is that this is often truer with our cars than when there is actually something wrong in our own bodies. Sad is perhaps not the best word choice; perilous or at risk might be better.
This analogy is especially appropriate when we are talking about breast cancer. Every year, the nation turns pink in October and there are pink ribbons everywhere reminding us about being aware of the importance of early detection. The first step in that process is not filling out forms in the doctor’s waiting area: it is learning how your breasts normally look and feel. In order to be able to notice any changes that might indicate a problem, you must first learn breast self-awareness.
One of the best ways to become tuned in to the normal shape and look of your breasts is to practice doing a self-breast exam. Most healthcare professionals recommend doing this self-exam once a month. Try to do it close to the same time each month. Hormonal cycles affect the breasts, so for women who are premenopausal, it is better to do the medical exam at the end of the menstrual cycle. Postmenopausal women can simply pick a day to consistently do the exam each month.
Self-Breast Exam Steps
Self-breast exams should be repeated in different positions on the same day.
- In the Shower – examine each breast, one at a time, by moving the pads of your finger in a circular motion around the breast and armpit. Start at the outside of the breast and move to the center. Feel for lumps, thickening of tissue or anything that feels like a knot. Be aware of any changes from the previous month.
- In Front of a Mirror – start with arms at your side and visually inspect your breasts. Then, raise both arms overhead and look for changes in shape, swelling, dimpling or changes in nipple color or shape. Rest palms on hips and press to flex chest muscles, once again looking for dimpling, puckering or changes. Most women do not have exactly the same size or shape for both breasts so only look for changes.
- Lying Down – lying down allows the breast tissue to spread out evenly along the chest wall. With a pillow under your right shoulder, place your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand in small circular motions, gently examine your right breast and armpit. Using light, medium and then firm pressure, squeeze the nipple and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat this process for the left breast.
If you notice any of following during your self-exam, make an appointment to consult with your doctor as soon as possible:
- Unexplained change in size or shape
- Dimpling or puckering
- Tender areas
- Redness or warmth
- Itchy, scaly skin
Become familiar with your breasts so that you can be your own early warning system. Remember, however, self-exams are not able to detect tumors as small as those found with a mammogram. Your best bet is monthly self-breast exams combined with yearly visits to your doctor for mammogram screening.
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