How to do a breast self-exam

We talked about how to do testicular self-exams, but I didn’t talk much about how to do breast self-exams. Thank you to the kind student who requested a little more info! It’s so important, because as we talked about in class, if you find a breast cancer while it’s still small, the chances of metastasis are much lower.

Before we talk about the procedure itself, I want to stress that self-exams should be done at least once a month. That way, you’ll become familiar with how your breasts look and feel, and you’ll be better able to tell if something has changed.

Breast cancer most commonly presents as a lump, so that’s the main thing you’re looking for. But sometimes, instead of a lump, there are other signs, as we talked about in class, like dimpling/puckering of the skin (if the cancer has attached itself to the skin or to the chest wall), or peau d’orange (thickening of the skin that resembles an orange peel). This procedure (below) involves examining your breasts in different positions, so you can detect all of these potential signs.

The National Breast Cancer foundation has a great step-by-step guide with detailed descriptions (good idea to check it out). Here’s a quick synopsis. There are three parts to the exam, each in a different place: in the shower, in front of a mirror, and lying down.

In the shower

Using the pads of your fingers, make small circular motions starting at the outer portion of your breast and moving in towards the center. Don’t forget the armpit!  Feel for lumps, thickening, or anything that feels different.

In front of a mirror

Look at your breasts first with your arms at your sides, then with your arms raised overhead, then with your hands on your hips as you flex your chest muscles. Look for dimpling, puckering, or any other changes. It’s normal for the breasts to not match exactly.

Lying down

Put a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. Use the same procedure you used in the shower to examine the entire breast and the armpit. Also, squeeze the nipple and check for discharge (some cancers present with crusty lesions and nipple discharge). Repeat on the other side.

That’s it! Once you get used to how your breasts feel and look, it goes quickly.

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