Why a Breast Cancer Exam is So Important
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and at Women First Health Center, we want to make sure you’re checking your breasts regularly for any lumps or changes. It’s important that a clinical breast exam is performed annually, starting at the age of 20 for all women, to improve the chances of detecting breast cancer early. But we also encourage a monthly breast self-exam. The simple act of occasionally looking at and feeling your breasts is all you need in order to notice any changes. Below, we’ll discuss the importance of checking your breasts regularly and the right way to do it.
The Importance of a Breast Self-Exam
Regularly examining your own breasts allows you to become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel, and can help you detect any changes that may occur over the years. Many women naturally have some lumpiness and differences between their right and left breast. The key to a breast self-exam is to become familiar with the individual characteristics of your breasts and to learn how to find changes.
Unfortunately, many women don’t know how to perform a breast self-exam correctly. Performing a self-exam incorrectly can almost be worse than not doing the exam at all, as it can give you a false sense of security. If you have any questions about a breast self-exam, it’s best to ask your physician how to accurately perform one during a clinical breast exam.
The 5 Steps of a Breast Self-Exam
If you don’t know how or are afraid that you’ll perform a self-exam wrong, don’t worry, we’ve provided the steps below for you.
➢ Step 1
Start by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. While looking in the mirror, examine your breasts to make sure they are their usual size, shape and color. You also should be looking to see if your breasts are evenly shaped, without any visible distortion or swelling. If you notice any changes, report it to your doctor.
➢ Step 2
Your next move is to raise your arms and look for the same changes.
➢ Step 3
With your arms raised, look in the mirror for any signs of fluid coming out of your nipples. Discharge could be watery, milky, yellow fluid or blood.
➢ Step 4
Now, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm but smooth touch, keeping your fingers flat and together with a circular motion. Check your entire breast from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage. Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You also can move your fingers up and down, vertically, which seems to work best for most women. Be sure to feel all of the tissue from the front and the back of your breasts.
➢ Step 5
Finally, feel your breasts while you’re standing or sitting. One of the easiest ways to feel your breasts is when your skin is wet, which makes the shower a good place to perform this step. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements as mentioned in step four.
Breast Changes to Watch for During Breast Self-Exam
There are several changes or abnormalities to be aware of during a breast self-exam. However, there is no need to be alarmed. A new lump does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. It could mean you have a far less serious problem, perhaps a cyst or an infection. But it’s important to communicate your concerns with your doctor. If you notice any of the changes listed below, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away:
- Lump or hard knot found in the breast or armpit
- Lump that does not shrink after your next period
- Change in the size, shape or symmetry of your breasts
- Thickening or swelling of the breast
- Dimpling or puckering of the breast
- Redness or scaliness of the nipple
- Nipple discharge – if the discharge is bloody, clear and sticky, or dark
- Nipple tenderness or pain
- Nipple retraction – drawing inward or pointing in a new direction
- Breast changes that you think are a cause for concern
When to Perform a Breast Self-Exam
While the American Cancer Society no longer recommends monthly breast self-exams, performing regular exams along with clinical breast exams is still beneficial. It allows you to promptly report any changes you notice to your physician. But when should you perform a breast self-exam? Below are the times you should perform a self-exam, depending on your current situation.
➢ Women Who are Menstruating
Hormonal changes due to your menstrual cycle can make your breasts more lumpy or swollen. During menstruation, you should perform a breast self-exam from a few days to about a week after your period has ended. This is usually when breasts are less tender or swollen.
➢ Women Who are No Longer Menstruating
If you are no longer menstruating, it’s important that you perform a breast self-exam on the same day every month. Pick a date that’s easy to remember, and schedule that day each month for a breast self-exam.
➢ Women Using Birth Control Pills
Women who are using oral contraceptives should perform their self-exam each month on the day they start a new package of pills.
➢ Women Who are Pregnant
Clinical breast exams should be performed by a healthcare professional on a monthly basis during pregnancy. It’s important that your breast exam is performed during the initial visit with your doctor, before your breasts go through significant changes. This is because some changes or lumps are more difficult to evaluate once your breasts have enlarged or become more nodular during pregnancy.
Clinical Breast Exams in West Orange, New Jersey
Breast cancer and other breast problems are serious matters that can be prevented and even treated thanks to early detection. At Women’s First Health Center in West Orange, our team regularly performs thorough breast exams for our patients. If you’ve noticed a lump or other changes in your breasts, or need to schedule your annual mammogram, call us at 973-669-5711 to schedule an appointment.