I remember seeing a chart for monthly breast self-exams hanging in the shower in my parent’s bathroom when I was a kid. There were about four or five illustrations of a woman doing a breast self-exam with text explaining what she was doing. Since I couldn’t read when I first saw it, my little kid’s brain thought she was doing a fun dance. I would wave my arms up over my head like the woman in the pictures and dance around in the shower. Now that I’m an adult and have talked with my doctor about doing breast self-exams, I now know the importance of doing this check each month.
What is a breast self-exam?
Breast self-exams are an easy, inexpensive way for people with breasts to check for lumps or irregularities in their breast tissue each month. Self-exams should in no way replace having your primary care doctor or gynecologist check your breast tissue when you visit, and they shouldn’t replace mammograms either. Self-exams are meant to supplement the professional care you get to check your breast tissue. Mammograms typically aren’t necessary until you’re in your 40s anyway, so you want to make sure you’re aware of your breast health from a young age.
Why should I do a self-check?
Self-exams are so important because about forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by people who notice a lump in their breast. All people with breasts should start doing self-exams once they develop breast tissue or go through puberty. You should do a self-check breast exam once a month. My birth control pack actually has a little note written after my first week of pills that says “Monthly breast self-exam” to remind me to check. You could also put a reminder on your phone or in your calendar, or just do it each month when you get your period.
When doing a self-exam, you’re looking for any changes in shape or color with your breasts or nipples, and also feeling for any bumps or lumps. In addition to checking for irregularities in your breast tissue, I think breast self-exams are awesome because it prompts you to pay attention to your body and get comfortable with it.
There are a few steps for a breast self-exam, and it only takes a few minutes
Stand in front of a mirror and have your arms by your side or on your hips. Observe your boobs! What do you see? Do they look the same they always do? Do you notice any discoloration, dimples, or swelling? You should contact your doctor if you notice any dimpling or puckering, bulging, redness or soreness, or nipples that have changed position. Additionally, if your nipples are expelling any liquid or discharge, contact your doctor ASAP!
Next, while still in front of that mirror, lift your arms up. (This is the part on my mom’s chart in the shower I interpreted as a dance, but who can blame me?) With your arms lifted, look for all of the same things you were looking at before.
You should also check your breast tissue while lying down. Your tissue spreads out all over when you’re lying down, positioning everything a little differently. Lay down and use the tips of your fingers to feel around. Put a pillow under your right shoulder, stretch your right arm up, and feel with your left hand. Use varying amounts of pressure as you feel around. Make sure to feel all the way into your armpit (you’ve got breast tissue in there, baby!), and under your boobs as well. The underboob area is sometimes hard to see in the mirror, so it’s important to feel for it. When you’re feeling around, it’s helpful to go in a pattern. You could start at your nipple and move in small circles going outward, or you could feel in lines across your breast. Just make sure to touch the whole breast. Repeat on the other side.
And finally, do a check standing or sitting up. A lot of people like to do a standing check in the shower (hence my mom’s chart in her shower) because your skin is slippery, making it easier for your fingers to glide over your breast. You’ll basically do the same movements you did to feel your boob when you were lying down. Pay attention to any lumps or bumps you feel.
What if I notice an issue?
If you do find a lump, dimpling, discharge, or change in your nipples, contact your doctor. A lot of women get small bumps or lumps in their breast tissue during their period because of hormonal changes, so if you notice a bump during that time, it might be due to hormones. If that lump persists and doesn’t go away by your next period, it could be something else. Just to be safe, if you notice any irregularities, call your doctor and tell them what’s up. They can guide you through your next steps.
Staying on top of your health is super important, and your breast health is no exception. Build in your monthly check as part of your self-care or health routine. It doesn’t take long, and if you find a lump or irregularity, it could literally save your life to be on top of your breast health. Remember, self-exams are only meant to supplement exams by your doctor or mammograms. Get comfy with yourself and stay on top of your breast health.
Illustrations depicting a breast self-exam can be found at nationalbreastcancer.org and breastcancer.org.