Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the United States. In fact, one of eight women will get a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives.
That’s why regular breast cancer screening mammograms are highly recommended at certain ages and times in a woman’s life – and have been for decades. Breast cancer screenings help detect cancer early, before symptoms appear and when the disease is most treatable.
But you can also play a big role in your breast health. That’s where self-exams for breast awareness come in.
You’ve likely heard you should be examining your breasts, but you may not be sure why or how. Or you may be afraid that you’ll find something out of the ordinary. We understand and we’re here to help.
Below we’ll talk about what breast awareness is and why it’s important, and how you can give yourself a breast exam to increase your breast awareness.
What is breast awareness and how do breast exams fit in?
Everybody’s breasts are unique, so breast awareness is all about knowing what’s normal for you. Why is breast awareness so important? Because by knowing how your breasts normally look and feel, it’ll be easier for you to notice changes that seem unusual so you can tell your doctor right away.
Of course, the best way to get to know your breasts is by performing your own breast self-exam – which we’ll walk you through how to do shortly. But before we do, it’s important to answer the following question.
Do self-breast exams replace screening mammograms?
Breast awareness and your own self-exams don’t replace routine mammograms, rather they’re meant to work together.
Mammograms use imaging technology to see what’s happening inside your breast before any symptoms like lumps or skin changes appear. This is important because many women diagnosed with breast cancer report that they didn’t notice breast cancer symptoms before a mammogram detected their cancer.
But between scheduled mammograms, your own breast awareness exams can catch abnormalities or signs of cancer. But the important thing to know is that not all abnormalities mean cancer.
For example, some women simply have lumpy breast tissue. So, while the self-exam method isn’t always accurate in detecting cancer, a large number of women report that their first sign of breast cancer came when they found a lump themselves. One estimate is that 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump.
So, when it comes to maintaining your breast health, mammograms and breast awareness is your preventive care combo. Keep scheduling your regular mammogram, but also make self-exams for breast awareness a fixture in your schedule.
How do you make sure you’re looking for the right things? Below we walk you through three simple steps for performing your own breast self-exam and maintaining breast awareness between mammograms.
Putting breast awareness into practice: How to give yourself a breast exam
Step 1: Visually inspect your breasts in front of a mirror
Many women know that they should be on the lookout for lumps. But changes in how your breasts look can signal breast cancer as well.
To help yourself spot these types of changes, start by standing in front of the mirror with your arms at your sides. Look for changes in the shape or appearance of your breasts, nipples or skin.
Breast cancer symptoms to watch for include: swelling, dimpling, nipple inversion, puckering or skin flaking. After checking for these symptoms, gently lift your breasts to make sure the ridges along the bottom look the same.
Next, raise your arms high overhead and clasp your hands together. Again, look for changes in the shape or appearance of your breast or nipples.
Lastly, place your hands firmly on your hips and flex your chest muscles. Look for the same symptoms.
Step 2: Feel your breasts while sitting or standing
For many women, a breast lump or lumps are the first sign of breast cancer. And while many women discover them on their own, they can be hard to see. You need to feel for them.
So, after visually inspecting your breasts, use your three middle fingers (the fingertip pads, not the actual tip) to check the entire breast and armpit area. Press down with light, medium and then firm pressure. You’re feeling for any lump, thickening, hardened knot, or any other changes since your last inspection.
The shower is a great place to do this part of the exam. Lather your fingers with soap and water and they’ll glide across your skin.
Step 3: Feel your breasts while lying down
Why lie down? When you lie on your back, your breast tissue spreads out more evenly. As the tissue spreads out, it feels less thick. This makes it easier for you to notice anything abnormal.
To get started, place a pillow under your right shoulder and lift your right arm behind your head. Then, using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around the entirety of your breast and armpit area.
Once again, use light, medium and then firm pressure to feel different depths of the breast. For example, light pressure allows you to feel tissue close to your skin, while firm pressure is better for feeling tissue near your chest and ribs.
Finally, squeeze your nipple to check for discharge and lumps, and repeat these steps for your left breast.
When should you perform a breast self-exam?
The way your breasts look and feel may change depending on where you’re at in your cycle – particularly during your period – and as you age and go through menopause. That’s why it’s a good idea to practice breast awareness regularly so you can spot changes.
There isn’t a specific recommended cadence, just that you regularly take the time to inspect your breasts. If it helps you remember, mark your calendar or set a reminder on your phone.
What should you do if you find a lump or notice anything out of the ordinary?
All women’s breasts are unique, so it’s important to know what’s normal for you. When combined with regular breast cancer screening mammograms, taking the time to inspect your breasts yourself can help you spot potential symptoms.
So, if you notice any possible symptoms of breast cancer like a lump, changes in how your breasts look or feel, nipple discharge, or if any other change has you concerned, try not to worry. But do make an appointment with a primary care doctor right away.
Your doctor will work with you to understand your medical history, talk with you about the changes you’ve noticed and your concerns, perform a clinical exam if necessary, and recommend next steps to help you maintain your breast health.
Questions or concerns about your breasts?
Make a primary care appointment