The truth about breast self-exams

What is a breast exam?

Consistent self-examination of the breasts can help detect breast cancer early on, when it is more treatable. Breast self-examination is an important screening tool, especially when combined with regular doctor visits, mammography, and occasionally ultrasound or MRI. Each of these screening tools has its own advantages and disadvantages. Breast self-exam is a simple, no-cost tool that can be used at any age. Performing routine breast self-exams is part of a comprehensive breast cancer screening strategy.

A daily breast self-exam takes only a few minutes. Ladies are suggested to examine their breasts during these times: dressing for the day or night, morning or night-time, lying in bed and showering. A monthly self-breast exam is best done 3–5 days after your period. This time of month, your breasts are less tender and lumpy.


How to include self-exams in your breast cancer screening plan?

  • Make it a habit. The more you examine your breasts, the more you will learn about them and be able to detect changes. Try to do a monthly breast self-exam to get used to how your breasts normally look and feel. Take a self-exam a few days post-menstrual cycle, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen. If you no longer have periods, pick a memorable date like the first or last day of the month.


  • Learn your breasts’ “neighborhoods.” The most prominent lumps and bumps are found near the armpit. Beach-like sensations in the lower breast. The nipple area can feel like large grains. Parts may resemble a lumpy bowl of oatmeal.


  • Begin a journal where you record your breast self-exam results. This can be a map of your breasts, noting lumps or irregularities. This may help you remember what is “normal” for your breasts month to month, especially at first. It’s normal for lumps to appear and then disappear during the menstrual cycle (if you are still menstruating).

These are the steps to do a proper breast examination.

  1. Begin by looking in the mirror at your breasts with your arms on your hips. You are looking for breasts of normal size, shape, and colour or breasts that are evenly shaped and not distorted or swollen
  2. Raise your arms and notice the same changes.
  3. Look in the mirror for signs of fluid coming from one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
  4. Next, lie down and feel your breasts first with your right hand, then your left. Your first few finger pads should be firm and smooth, with the fingers flat and together. Use a quarter-sized circular motion.
  5. Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to your cleavage.
  6. Cover the entire breast by following a pattern. Begin at the nipple and work your way up to the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers vertically, like mowing a lawn. Most women seem to prefer this up-and-down method.
  7. Use light pressure on the skin and tissue just beneath, medium pressure on the tissue in the middle of your breasts, and firm pressure on the deep tissue in the back. You should be able to feel your ribs once you’ve reached deep tissue. Your aim is to get used to the feel of your breasts. This will help you find something new.



Stay calm if you find something suspicious. Most self-exam findings aren’t cancerous, but you don’t know if you don’t ask. Don’t hesitate to consult a doctor if you have any questions on techniques or findings of the breast self-exam.

These are some red flag signs to look out for.

  • Abnormalities in appearance such as skin dimpling, swelling and nipple retraction or rash
  • Any breast discharge if not breastfeeding
  • Changes in the nipple’s appearance.
  • Breast lump, hard knot, or thick spot
  • Unremitting pain in one area


What to expect from doctors?

To evaluate your breast lump, doctors usually start with a history taking, breast examination and probably order some breast imaging tests. In women under 30, pregnant or breastfeeding, ultrasound is often the first or only imaging test used to evaluate a lump. An ultrasound and a mammogram are usually recommended for women over 30 who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. If more testing is needed, your doctor may suggest MRI, MBI, or a biopsy. If necessary, he or she may refer you to a breast specialist (usually a breast surgeon). According to NICE guidelines, breast cancer is diagnosed by triple assessment (clinical examination, mammography and/or ultrasonography imaging with core biopsy and/or fine needle aspiration cytology). Your doctor should explain the cause of the lump or other breast change and, if necessary, prescribe a monitoring or treatment plan.


Breast self-exams are still a good practice to help in breast cancer screening. Never feel shy to Find doctor for any further help.

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