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breast exam, self exam, breast health

DIY Women’s Health: How to Give Yourself a Breast Exam

With more than 12% of all women predicted to develop breast cancer at some point during their life, it couldn’t be more important for every woman to become familiar with her own breasts and to know how to properly carry out a breast exam to make sure that any problem is spotted early. Early detection plays a key role in being able to effectively treat breast cancer, and those who receive treatment at an early stage have a much better prognosis and can look forward to a much more favorable outcome than those women who delay seeking treatment until the cancer is much more advanced.




Familiarizing Yourself With Your Breasts


Unfortunately, some women still feel uncomfortable about checking their breasts. Perhaps because of deep seated embarrassment or maybe because of dissatisfaction about the appearance of their body, some women are reluctant to carry out a breast exam, and yet it is the best way to spot something that is out of the ordinary.


All women’s breasts are different, and knowing what to expect from yours is very important. Being familiar with the shape, texture and size of your breasts and nipples is essential so that you can immediately recognize any changes which occur. This is especially important for women who have a close relative who has already been diagnosed with breast cancer as this makes the chance of developing the condition more likely, however even for those women who have no family history of the disease it is still very important to carry out regular breast checks since 85% of cases of breast cancer are in women with no previously link to the condition.


How Often To Carry Out A Self-Examination


Many experts believe that every woman should carry out her own breast self-examination once a month. Sticking to the same time of the month is very important as each woman’s breasts go through subtle changes throughout the course of their menstrual cycle and that means that if you check at irregular times you may well become worried by lumps and bumps which are completely normal for you at that time of the month. For the same reason, it is suggested that women don’t check too frequently as this can just lead to anxiety and stress.


Standing Up Or Lying Down?


There are two main ways in which you can carry out your own breast exam. The first is lying down and the second is standing up. Experts suggest that the most effective way to detect any changes is to use both methods however, as there is no right or wrong way to examine yourself it’s important that you choose the method that is most comfortable for you.


A Step By Step Guide


Begin by performing the breast exam standing up:


  • Raise up your left arm and examine your left breast.
  • Avoid using your fingertips as this can end up causing you pain if you inadvertently push down too hard while looking for changes. As your fingertips also have a pulse it can be difficult to know exactly what you are feeling and this may mean that you fail to detect a lump or, alternatively, become anxious about a bump which is actually normal breast tissue. Instead, use your fingers’ flat pads.
  • Use light, medium, then firm pressure to check all of your breast tissue including up into the armpit. If you imagine the spokes of a bicycle, you should use the flat of your hand beginning at 12 o clock and working down to the nipple. You should then repeat all the way around your breast.
  • Squeeze the nipple gently to see if there is any discharge.
  • Don’t forget to check the area surrounding your armpits as the breast tissue goes all the way around the axilla area.
  • Repeat on your right breast, raising your right arm as you carry out the examination.
  • Once you have repeated the entire breast exam standing up, you should then repeat it once more on both sides lying down. If you want to ensure greater comfort, prop a pillow beneath the shoulder of the breast which you are checking.


What Am I Looking For?


It’s pointless to carry out a breast exam if you don’t know what symptoms you are looking out for. Here are some of the common issues which could indicate a problem. If you note any of these major changes while checking your breasts it’s important that you make an appointment with your doctor for further investigation straight away so that you can rule out any serious problems.


  • Retracted nipples
  • Puckering of the skin or nipple
  • Pain in the nipple or breast
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Swelling of the breast
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes
  • A lump or mass in the breast tissue


Although it may be frightening to discover any of these symptoms while carrying out a breast exam it’s important to remember that the majority of lumps in the breast are benign and that even when doctors do recommend a biopsy, most turn out to be benign.


Get Your Timing Right


While we’ve already mentioned that you need to be consistent about the time of the month that you examine yourself, choosing the correct time in your cycle is key. If you have not yet gone through the menopause, it makes sense to choose a day which is at the end of your period. This is because the week before your period begins your breasts will usually be more tender and fuller and this can make it difficult to detect any changes properly. During ovulation, your body produces extra progesterone and this hormone is at its highest during the week before your period begins and at its lowest just after your period ends. It is important to check our breasts when they are least stimulated by hormones, primarily because it is more comfortable. If you have already gone through the menopause, you should still choose a regular day, such as the 12th or the 20th and always perform your self-exam on that same day each month.


Don’t Be Afraid


women's doctor, breast exam, breast health, breast cancer


It is completely normal for any woman to be extremely worried and frightened if they detect any changes in their breast during a breast exam, however it is very important to not allow fear to get in the way of visiting a doctor. The change that you have detected may well not be anything to be concerned about, but only a doctor can reassure you of this. If the worst happens and it does turn out to be a sign of breast cancer, speaking to your doctor as soon as you spot the lump or change will ensure that you receive prompt treatment and that you will have the best chance of being successfully treated. If you allow fear to hold you back from seeking medical care, you could well end up leaving it too late to receive effective treatment.


Some women don’t want to seek medical help because they are worried about the embarrassment of a physical examination. Others are worried that they may be left scarred or deformed by any tests which need to be carried out. However, these days, many breast lumps and changes can be examined by a medical professional without any invasive procedures at all, and in many cases all that is required is an ultrasound examination which causes no physical changes to the breasts at all. In a lot of cases, these tests reveal only a benign cyst which requires no further treatment.


However, for those women who do have a more serious problem, seeking early medical advice helps to reduce the chance of needing drastic surgery and greatly increases the chance of a positive outcome.

Last Updated on January 31, 2018 by Womens Aid Center Chicago


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