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Breast Self-Exams: A How-to Guide to Protect Against Breast Cancer

October 13, 2021

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Women have long heard about the importance of checking themselves for breast cancer. But what’s the best way to do so? What should they be looking for, and how often? Should men be on the lookout too?

Regularly screening for breast cancer is the single most effective way to detect and diagnose cancer at its earliest stage, when treatment will be most effective. Though one in eight U.S. women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime, when the disease is found early, women have a 98% five-year survival rate. And while men may carry less breast tissue than women, men often present more advanced cases of the disease – another reason why it’s critical to catch breast cancer early.

For both women and men, the following tips can help you conduct breast self-exams to check your breasts for changes and take proactive steps to protect against breast cancer.

Make It Monthly

Starting at age 20, women should check their breasts every month, approximately three to five days after their menstrual period. Likewise, men who have been exposed to radiation or have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer should conduct breast self-exams each month.

Know Your “Normal”

When conducting your exam, know what’s “normal” for your breast shape, size, skin, and texture, and how they feel and change when arms are raised. Follow these steps:

  • Lay down flat or stand in front of a mirror. Put one arm behind your head and, using the opposite hand, move your fingers from the collarbone and armpit towards the middle of the breast, gently squeezing to identify changes.
  • Use your hands to familiarize yourself with your breast tissue on the top, bottom, sides, under the nipples, and between the breasts. Note that the tissue toward the top of the breast will be different than the bottom, and across various sides of the breast.
  • As a final step, squeeze the nipple to check for any discharge or frontal lumps. Then, repeat this process for the opposite breast.

Recognize Common Signs and Changes

When examining your breasts, remember to look for signs and changes. If you feel any new lumps or notice a change that doesn’t feel right, talk to your doctor right away. Many women have benign breast conditions or changes throughout their lives, but to determine the best course of action, it’s important to consult your doctor.

Key signs and changes to look for include:

  • Asymmetrical changes in breast size or shape
  • Thickening of breast or underarm tissue
  • Nipple retraction or discharge
  • Dimpled skin or skin resembling an orange peel
  • Tenderness or pain in the breast or nipple
  • Irritation, redness, scaliness, or swelling on the breast, nipple, or areola

For more information about breast cancer, view the following resources:

* Note that this recommendation is specific to women with average risk. It is important to discuss with a physician your individual risk factors, including age, menopausal status, and family history, to determine your screening needs.

The presence of certain genes or factors, such as the BRCA gene, can significantly increase your risk of contracting breast cancer and therefore may warrant more frequent clinical exams. If you are concerned about having an elevated risk for breast cancer, consider undergoing genetic testing to determine the appropriate screening schedule and health management for you.


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