One of the most important things a woman can do to increase her likelihood of detecting breast cancer in its early stages is to conduct regular self-checks of her breasts. These self-checks, commonly known as breast self-exams, can be conducted in less than five minutes and can truly mean the difference between life and death. Many of the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer, such as lumps or masses, are quite obvious, but some can be very subtle and will only be noticed if a woman has a very good understanding of what is “normal” for her breasts. Conducting regular breast self-exams helps women to fully understand the look, feel and structure of their breasts so they are able to recognize these subtle but critically important, changes if they arise.
Generally speaking, women are looking for any changes, large or small, to the size, shape, or appearance of their breasts when performing a breast self-exam. This includes changes to the skin or nipples, and the presence of any swelling, irritation or dimpling and puckering. It is also important that women approach breast self-exams the same way every time, so they are better able to recognize any of the changes that could indicate cancer. Breast exams should be conducted on a monthly basis in the shower, in front of a mirror, and lying down to ensure a full examination of all of the breast tissue is being completed each time.
In the Shower
When conducting a breast exam in the shower, use the tips of your fingers to palpate (press into) your breast in a circular motion, from the outside of your breast towards the nipple. Putting soap on your breast will make this part of the exam easier. You should complete this motion three times using three different levels of pressure: gentle, firm, and hard. This will allow you to independently feel breast tissue at three depths, which helps to better differentiate the location of any lumps you might find. You are looking for lumps, masses, or any hardening of the breast tissue. Repeat on the other breast.
In Front of the Mirror
As stated above, breast cancer can cause subtle changes to the appearance of the breast. This can manifest in the size and shape of the breast itself, the appearance of the skin, and the structure of the nipple. When conducting a breast exam in the mirror, you are looking for these visual changes. To begin, examine your breasts in the mirror with your hands at your side, looking for changes to the skin, nipple and breast. Then raise your arms high overhead, looking for any changes to the shape of your breast, dimpling or pocketing in the surface of the breast, and redness or swelling. Use this self-exam to establish a baseline and then take note of any changes on subsequent exams and mention them to your healthcare provider.
The final stage of a monthly breast self-exam is to repeat the physical examination you performed in the shower while lying down with a pillow behind your shoulder. When lying down, breast tissue will spread out evenly against the chest, which can reveal lumps that were previously hidden. Repeat the self-exam conducted in the shower, complete with three levels of pressure, and take note of any lumps you uncover. This can also be a time to further examine lumps you find in the shower.
If you find a lump during your monthly self-exam, don’t panic. Many lumps turn out to be non-cancerous and do not require treatment. Cancerous lumps are generally firm, immovable and pain-free, while benign lumps are softer, easy to manipulate with the finders and painful to the touch. However, these are just rules of thumb, so you should mention the lump to your physician as soon as possible regardless of how it feels on self-exam. Armed with this knowledge, the two of you can develop a plan moving forward.