Your Guide to Breast Self-Examination

12 Oct, 2022

Ladies, is your that time of the month near yet?

Before you start wondering, we are referring to your monthly breast self-examination (BSE) – a tool that could put you ahead of breast cancer. Although most women know what breast self-examination is, there are some who wonder if they are doing it the right way. 

In an attempt to put an end to all questions related to breast self-examination, we have written this article covering everything you need to know about breast self-examination, or simply, a self-breast exam. 

What is Breast Self-Examination?

reast self-examination, or self-breast examination, is a simple breast cancer screening tool.

A breast self-examination involves a woman examining her breasts with her hands periodically at home in a systematic stepwise fashion. This helps women become familiar with the look and feel of their breasts and immediately notice when something is not normal. It also helps in the detection of breast lumps that may or may not be cancerous. 

Why is Breast Self-Examination Important?

Routine breast self-examinations are crucial for your breast health, and they should be performed every month. 

These tests can help you detect any changes that could point towards benign and malignant breast conditions. In the case of breast cancer, self-examination could play an important role in early diagnosis, which can lead to timely treatment.

In addition to a self-breast exam, women should opt for regular checkups and screening tests such as mammography, as these help in the early detection of breast cancer – even before it starts showing symptoms.

What are the Steps Involved in Breast Self-Examination?

Breast self-examination involves two main steps: visual inspection and physical examination. 

Visual Inspection: To visually inspect your breasts, you can use a mirror. 

  1. Take off your clothes and stand in front of a mirror with your arms placed on your sides.
  2. Start looking for changes in your breasts. Changes you need to look for include puckering, dimpling, bruising, and redness in the skin. 
  3. Look for changes in the size, shape, and symmetry of your breasts.
  4. Check if the nipples are inverted or turned in.
  5. Inspect your breasts for the above-mentioned changes with your hands placed on your hips and your arms raised above your head.
  6. Lastly, check if the ridges along the bottom of your breasts are symmetrical by lifting them.

Manual Inspection/Physical Examination: You should physically examine your breasts while standing up and lying down. 

While Standing: 

  1. Gently press into the right breast with the pads of the three middle fingers of your left hand. Using massage oil during the physical examination helps in detecting lumps and other abnormalities easily. Manual inspection can also be done during your shower.
  2. Look for lumps, nodules, and thickening in the regions of your breast and armpit.
  3. Let the pressure be firm for deeper tissue and gentle for the tissue underneath the skin.
  4. Check the area under the areola for swelling or thickening.
  5. Put your thumb and forefinger on the tissue around the nipple and pull outward toward the end of the nipple to check for abnormal nipple discharge.
  6. This procedure should be repeated for your left breast.
  7. Physical inspection of the breast can be done in different patterns: 
    • Circles: Sliding the fingers in a clockwise direction
    • Wedges: Sliding the fingers starting from outside towards the nipple and outwards
    • Up and Down Pattern: Sliding the fingers up and down the breasts from outside to inside.

While Lying: 

  1. To examine your right breast, place a pillow or a folded towel under your right shoulder. Place your right hand behind your head. This ensures proper distribution of your breast tissue.
  2. Using the pads of the three middle fingers of your left hand, start examining your breasts and armpit region for lumps, nodules, and thickenings.
  3. Let the pressure be firm for deeper tissue and gentle for the tissue underneath the skin.
  4. Also, check for any abnormal nipple discharge by placing your thumb and forefinger on the tissue surrounding the nipple and pulling outward towards the end of the nipple.
  5. The same procedure should be repeated for your left breast.

Take your own time to examine your breasts. Do not hurry. Get familiar with your breast tissue.

If you have any questions or concerns related to the self-examination of your breasts, please talk to your primary physician or gynaecologist.

Common Questions About Breast Self-Examination

1. When should women begin breast self-examination?

Beginning at age 20, women should perform self-breast exams every month for the rest of their lives.

2. Can I self-examine my breasts during my periods?

The ideal time to perform your monthly breast self-examination is one week after your monthly period ends.

Some women experience tenderness in their breasts during their periods, and self-breast exams during this can cause discomfort. Therefore, you should examine your breasts sometime after your period ends. 

3. Can I self-examine my breasts during my pregnancy?

Some reports suggest that breast self-examinations may not be effective during pregnancy as the size of milk ducts tends to change rapidly, especially during the last trimester. 

Nevertheless, it is safe to get familiar with your breasts during your pregnancy, so you can alert your doctor if you come across something that is unusual and needs medical attention. 

For more information on self-examining your breasts during pregnancy, please talk to your gynaecologist or primary physician.

4. Should I visit a hospital for my breast self-examination?

No, you need not visit a hospital for your breast self-examination. 

4. Is breast self-examination necessary after mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery?

Yes, the other breast that was not affected by cancer will still need screening. Also, if autologous tissue is used for breast reconstruction, the screening will become necessary for the reconstructed breast too. 

For more information on better screening guidance after breast reconstruction surgery, it is important to talk to a breast cancer specialist.

5. Do I need mammography if I am self-examining my breasts every month?

Breast self-examination is a tool that can help women find out if there are any changes that may point towards various benign and malignant breast problems. However, mammography, on the other hand, provides you with detailed information about your breast health. 

Mammography can detect different anomalies, namely cysts, calcifications, and tumours, and can play a significant role in helping you make informed health decisions. Therefore, breast self-examination should not be considered as a substitute for mammography.

6. If my breasts appear to be different in size during my self-exam, is that a sign of breast cancer?

It is normal for women to have uneven breasts or nipples. However, if the breasts vary in size by over 20%, it may indicate the risk of breast cancer. In those cases, you should immediately consult your primary care physician or gynaecologist.

7. What should I do if I find a lump or any other abnormalities during my breast self-exam?

Do not panic. In most cases, lumps found in the breasts and armpits are non-cancerous.

However, consult a breast cancer specialist and report your observations. You may have to take further tests like mammography and ultrasound for a conclusive diagnosis.

Bottom Note

It is true that breast cancer is one of the most common cancers. However, awareness of early detection and advanced treatment approaches has made it one of the most effectively treatable cancers too. Therefore, when a lump or any other sign of breast cancer is found, it is important to not panic. Consult your gynaecologist or primary care physician, who can guide you in the proper direction or suggest you consult a good cancer specialist. Otherwise, you can directly visit the best cancer hospital near you for a quick consultation with a breast cancer specialist and a quick mammogram scan. 

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