The best approach for the detection of breast cancer is a combined effort – by you and your health care provider.
Mammograms can detect tumors before they can be felt. But monthly self-exams may help you notice changes in your breasts which you should then tell your doctor. Because most young women do not get mammograms, breast cancer is most often first detected when a woman notices a lump or change in the look or feel of her breast, nipple or underarm area.
Regular breast exams conducted by your gynecologist or primary care physician are no longer required because research does not show they provide a clear benefit. However, all women should be familiar with how their breasts typically look and feel and report any changes to their health care provider right away.
“While self-exams cannot replace the need for regular mammograms,” says Dr. Carmen Calfa, a breast medical oncologist with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, “you can be proactive about your own health by incorporating self-exams into your wellness routine and making informed decisions with your doctor.”
How to complete a breast self-exam
The best time to do a breast self-exam is three to five days after your period starts every month when your breasts are not as tender or lumpy. If you no longer have a menstrual cycle, complete your self-exam on the same day every month.
- First, lay on your back.
- Place your right hand behind your head.
- With the middle fingers of your left hand, firmly press down using small motions to examine the entire right breast.
- Next, sit or stand.
- Feel your armpit because there’s breast tissue in that area.
- Gently squeeze your nipple.
- Repeat the process on your left breast.
- Then, stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your side.
- Look down at your breasts to observe them.
- Observe your breasts in the mirror.
- Do the same with your arms raised above your head.
Dr. Calfa reminds her patients that “the most effective method is to familiarize yourself with what’s normal for your breasts.”
What to look for:
- Lump in the breast (Once you know what’s normal and healthy for your breasts, you’ll be better prepared to notice any new lumps that require further examination by your doctor.)
- Nipple tenderness or a lump
- Thickening inside or near the breast
- Thickening inside or near the underarm area
- Skin of the breast, areola or nipple that becomes scaly, red or swollen or may have ridges, enlarged pores or pitting (resembling the skin of an orange)
- Dimpling anywhere on the breast
- Unexplained swelling of the breast, especially if on one side only
- Unexplained shrinkage of the breast, especially if on one side only
- Changes in the symmetry of the breasts
- Nipple discharge, especially clear or bloody
- Nipple is turned slightly inward or inverted
What to do if you notice changes in your breasts
If you notice any of the changes mentioned above in your breast, see your doctor immediately for an examination and possible mammogram. If you find a lump, don’t panic because 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous.
“Don’t be afraid to have your breasts screened by a medical professional,” Dr. Calfa advises. “Being informed is the best way to take charge of your health and respond quickly when needed.”
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog.