Knowing the proper technique to giving a breast self-examination (BSE) can be an important way to gauge your health. The BSE technique was developed as an early way to screen for breast cancer. Although, this technique has its limitations, it still has many benefits. Performing breast self-examinations allows women to know the typical shape, size and feel of their breasts, which helps them to alert doctors to any unusual changes such as lumps, discharge or swelling . Keep in mind, however, that breasts do tend to change over time. While it’s always a good idea to get anything abnormal checked out by a doctor, realize that not every change is cancerous.
Women should start examining their breasts in their early 20s, about once a month. The best time to do the exam for pre-menopausal women is just after a menstrual cycle because this is when breasts are least likely to be tender and swollen.
Here are the steps to performing a breast self-exam:
- Lie down and place your right arm behind your head. The exam in performed lying down because this causes the breast tissue to spread evenly over the chest, making it much easier to feel the breast tissue.
- Use the pads of the 3 middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use overlapping dime-sized circular motions to feel the breast tissue.
- Use 3 different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue. Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue closest to the skin, medium pressure to feel the middle layer and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs. It is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast, but you should tell your doctor if you feel anything else unusual. If you’re not sure how hard to press, talk with your doctor or nurse. Use each level of pressure when feeling the breast tissue.
- Move the breast around in an up and down pattern starting at an imaginary line drawn straight down your side from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone. Remember that a thorough BSE includes checking down until you feel only ribs and up to the collar bone.
- Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam.
- Next, stand up in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips. Look at your breasts for any changes of size, shape, contour, or dimpling, or redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.
- Examine each underarm while standing for anything out of the ordinary. Only raise your arm slightly so you can easily feel in this area. If you raise your arm straight up, the tissue tightens, making it harder to examine.
Remember that a self-exam does not take the place of yearly mammogram. Starting in your 40s, schedule a mammogram every 1 to 2 years. If you have an elevated risk for breast cancer, talk to your doctor about when you should start getting mammograms.