How to perform a self-breast exam

The proper technique for a breast self-exam isn’t difficult to learn, and being familiar with your breasts can help you notice new changes. However, it’s important to know that self-exams aren’t a replacement for breast cancer screenings – only a licensed and trained healthcare provider can perform those – and also that they haven’t been proven to help with early detection.

Because of this, most medical organizations don’t recommend them as part of the cancer screening process, but some organizations, including the National Breast Cancer Foundation, do encourage them when combined with regular medical care and mammograms.

You should continue to follow the screening recommendations of your healthcare provider, but if you’d like to know how to perform a self-exam, there are a few steps to follow.

Visual exam

  1. Use a mirror to look at your breasts with your arms at your hips and your shoulders straight. Are your breasts their usual size, shape, and color? Make sure there’s no distortion, swelling, dimpling, puckering, or bulging. In addition, look out for redness, soreness, rash, or a nipple that has changed position or inverted.
  2. Raise your arms in front of the mirror and look for any changes, keeping in mind all of the same signs listed above. Make sure there isn’t fluid coming out of either of your nipples. If you’re pregnant or nursing, you may see some normal leakage, but keep an eye out for anything abnormal.

Physical exam

  1. Lie down so your breast tissue will spread across your chest, and use your right hand to feel your left breast. Keep your fingers flat and together, and make a small circular motion to feel your entire breast. Go top to bottom and side to side. You can try going out from the nipple circularly or in rows vertically or horizontally. Find a method that works best for you and allows you to check the entire breast. When you’re done, repeat this action by using your left hand to feel your right breast.
  2. Stand or sit up (some women find this easiest or most convenient in the shower), and feel both of your breasts repeating the above method.   

If you see any of the signs mentioned, feel something abnormal, or see any changes in your breasts, inform your healthcare provider. Additionally, the American Cancer Society’s guidelines state that women 45-54 should get mammograms every year, but you should check in with your healthcare provider about your unique family history and risk for breast cancer.

Non-cancerous lumps are very common, so don’t panic if you feel something strange in a breast self-exam. See your healthcare provider as soon as you can, and they’ll be able to guide you through how to move forward.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Breast self-exam for breast awareness.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. July 17, 2014. Web.
  • “The Five Steps of a Breast Self-Exam.” February 18, 2016. Web.
  • “Breast Self-Exam.” National Breast Cancer Foundation. National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. 2016. Web.
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