Breast Self-Exam: listen to your body

Breast Self-Exam: why, when, and how?

Health professionals encourage women of all ages to do a breast self-exam regularly, preferably once a month. The breast self-exam is supposed to be done at home, in your own privacy and at your own pace.

Why do I need to do a Breast Self-Exam?

Breast Cancer is a terrible disease that affects and kills millions of women all over the world. There is not really much one can do to prevent it, but there are ways to detect it early. Breast Cancer tends to be detected in late stages, but the earlier the detection, the easier the disease is to treat.

As such, women everywhere, of all ages, are very encouraged to examine their breasts at home. Because one little change on your breasts can be a sign that something is not right and knowing what to look for and how to detect it can literally save your life.

However, we do understand the emotional implications of doing a breast self-exam. Many women feel anxious (terrified, even) about it, which is very understandable, and postpone it again and again. We understand the fear of finding something, but we also know, as you surely do, that it is better to find it early rather than late.

If you are able to get through your fear and anxiety, you will quickly make the breast self-exam a part of your monthly routine – which is how it should be.

 

When is the best time of the month to do a Breast Self-Exam?

Because your hormones fluctuate a lot during your menstrual cycle, breast tissue can suffer some temporary and local changes. Many women feel some tenderness during their periods, and that is perfectly fine. As such, the best time to perform a breast self-exam tends to be the week after your period ends. However, if you feel something is wrong or different at any time of your cycle, it is best to give yourself a breast self-exam. Better safe than sorry!

 

How do I do a Breast Self-Exam?

A Breast Self-Exam is very easy to do at home.

  1. Inspect your breasts while standing up.
breast self-exam

This can be done in the shower because it is convenient and also because it reduces the anxiety associated with the action itself. Raise your arm above your head and use the tips and pads of your 3 middle fingers to press lightly on each of your breasts and armpits. With gentle taps, and applying a light pressure, check the sides of your breasts, the nipple area, and your armpits. Feel for any lump of thickening of the skin, as well as swelling or painful areas. Do “up and down” movements, as well as circular movements.

Image source: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

 

  1. Standing in front of a mirror

breast self-exam

A breast self-exam includes not only “feeling” your breasts, but also a visual examination. Stand in front of a mirror and look for any changes in your breasts with your arms down. Then, lift your arms above your head and see if you notice any colour change in your nipples, any rash on the breasts, any dimples, or even for some kind of new asymmetry. Note that the right and left breasts tend to be slightly different in most women – what we mean by “asymmetry” is a sudden change in how your breasts look, something that wasn’t there before.

Lastly, press your two palms against your hips and flex your chest muscles. Look for any change or discomfort. Additionally, pay attention to your nipples and especially if there is any discharge or inversion of the nipple.

Image source: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

 

  1. Self-examine your breasts while lying down

breast self-exam

For this step you just need to do the same as in step 1 but lying down. When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out along your chest wall, and this can make lumps or swelling more evident. Place a pillow under your shoulder and the corresponding arm behind your head. Pat and press lightly around your breast and nipple with the opposite hand, as well as the armpit.

Image source: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

These steps should be repeated for both breasts.

 

I found something. What do I do now?

Ok, first step: do not panic. We know this is very easy to say and very difficult to actually do but try to stay calm if you find something worrying during your breast self-exam. A lump or swelling in your breast can be something bad but can also be something due to hormone fluctuations.

Next immediate step it to book an appointment with a doctor or nurse as soon as possible. You will most likely be examined again by a health professional – they will use their hands on a first instance to examine your breasts and armpit areas, and feel for lumps, swelling, discharge, nipple inversion, rash, skin thickening, or others.

During your appointment, tell your doctor or nurse everything that might be of concern, even if it is not visible during the manual exam, like painful or sore areas. Do not hide or sugar-coat anything. For those of you who normally dismiss light or mild symptoms, do not do it. Do not be afraid of wasting someone’s time – looking out for our health is not a waste of time.

It is quite common to have women do a mammogram as well, even if the health professional did not find anything alarming. So, if this happens to you, do not be excessively worried: a mammogram is not exactly fun or enjoyable, but is a very good and safe diagnosis technique. Contrary to what many people believe, a mammogram is not exactly physically painful – it is just a bit uncomfortable, but usually very fast as well.

As some final notes:

  • It is normal for breasts to not be symmetrical;
  • A lump does not immediately mean cancer;
  • Men can get breast cancer as well, even if the incidence is much lower;
  • A mammogram does not cause breast cancer;
  • If you are still unsure about how to do a breast self-exam, ask a health professional, like your GP, to show to you.

Finally, spread the word! Tell the women in your family and friend circle about the Breast Self-Exam and its importance. Be an active part in spreading awareness and promoting early detection of breast cancer by performing breast self-exams.

Take good care. Of yourself. Of your breasts. Of your health.

 

Adittional sources:

https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/breast-exam/about/pac-20393237

https://www.europadonna.org/breast-cancer-facs/

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam

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