Breast self-examination is something that many women ignore, but according to many health professionals, it can mean the difference between a long, healthy life and having your years cut unfairly short. The primary reason doctors encourage this simple procedure is to detect breast cancer, but changes in your breasts also can relate to other health conditions, such as mastitis.
When should I do it?
For most women, the best time to do a breast self-exam is once a month, about a week after you start your period. This is the time of the month when your breasts aren’t as swollen and tender, making it much easier to feel problematic areas. The trouble is, there are instances where this won’t work very well. For instance, irregular periods, menopause, and hysterectomies all can throw things off. Breastfeeding also can make things more challenging. In these instances, the ideal exam time is just a day of the month you’re not going to forget. The first of the month usually works well for a lot of ladies. If you’re breastfeeding, do the exam after any feeding or pumping session on a consistent day of the month that works for you. Performing the exam with empty breasts is usually more comfortable and prevents fluid from masking issues.
How do I perform a breast self-exam?
You can do a breast self-examination in two positions, standing or lying down on your back. Women who opt for the standing position usually perform the exam in the shower—they find that having some lubrication from a little soap makes things more comfortable. The on-your-back position can be better, however, because gravity naturally will pull on your breasts, spreading them out for you and making it easier to find abnormalities.
Regardless of which position you choose for your exam, a general guideline is that, as you go through the procedure, you use the pads of your middle three fingers—not your fingertips—to apply gentle but firm pressure. You’ll need to vary the amount of pressure you use, based on the depth of the tissue you’re checking, and you should use the hand opposite of the breast you’re examining (i.e., left hand for the right breast). Move your fingers in small circles, working your around your entire breast in a spiral pattern. An alternate pattern is to use vertical strips. If you choose this option, you move from the base of your bra line up all the way to your collarbone, moving over only about a finger width or so for each pass.
How do I tell what’s normal?
Generally, something that is abnormal in breast tissue isn’t symmetric, meaning that you’re not going to have it present in both your breasts. If you find something that feels a little off, double check the other breast. If you feel the same sort of thing in the second breast, you’re likely okay, but always check with your doctor if you have concerns. Signs that normally warrant an appointment with your physician include changes to the size or height of one breast, dimpling or depressions, and discharge from your nipples (other than what you might expect from breastfeeding). Areas that feel unusually thick may suggest a problem, as well.
An important note here is that it’s very important for you to be consistent in when and how you do your exams. Breast tissue changes throughout the menstrual cycle, for example, so if you do it at random times, you won’t really have a good point of comparison.
Do I still have to see my doctor if I do a breast self-exam and feel normal?
Doing breast self-examination isn’t a guarantee for health. Cancer can still be lurking even if it hasn’t progressed to the point where you physically can feel it. For this reason, you still need to see your doctor and let him to a more formal exam during your regular physical. If you aren’t comfortable with a male physician touching you this way, don’t let this stop you from going. Most clinics are more than willing to set up an appointment for you with a female doctor, and male doctors won’t take it one bit personally if you opt to do something that makes you more comfortable.