As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to a close, let’s talk about breast self-exams. If one is not already folded into your routine, start incorporating it immediately. According to Laura Kruper, M.D., M.S., a breast cancer surgeon at City of Hope, there are many factors to consider. She explains that it is a multi-step process that includes not only the breasts but also the surrounding areas. To simplify, here are the six steps she suggests following for a more complete breast self-exam (if you’d rather watch a how-to video, instead, scroll down).
1. Know Your Breasts And Check Them Out Often!
It is important to be familiar with your breasts. The ability to spot changes in your breast health requires having a base point. If you know the overall look, shape, feel and appearance of your breasts, you’ll be in a better position to catch abnormal growths, changes in appearance, and anything that may seem new. This step is best done while in the mirror, feel free to sit (or stand), but make sure you are unclothed from the waist up.
What Are You Looking For?
- Lumps that are visible to the eye
- Differences between both breasts that seem unusual
- Visible indentations or dimpling in the breast tissue
- Any changes to the appearance of the skin or nipples that may seem abnormal, including redness, scaliness, discoloration, etc.
- Any changes to your nipples, like one or both nipples looking newly inverted or appear to be pulling in
If any of the above are noticed, make a call to your doctor and get checked out. It’s always better to be safe!
2. Stay in The Mirror, But This Time Change Your Position!
In this step, you’re looking for the same signs as in step one, except in a different position. Sometimes, when we look from a different angle, we can see things in a new light. Dr. Kruper says that keeping your hands on your hips and slowly swiveling from side-to-side will help you catch possible abnormalities from more angles.
Next, her advice is to lift your arms and place them above your head. Look for the same signs, again — to see if there’s any dimpling or puckering of the skin where you elevate them. “When you raise your arms, if there is [a mass], [it] stays there and the skin pulls in,” says Dr. Kruper. So make sure to pay close attention with scrutiny.
3. Use the 3-Finger Examination Technique
This step should be done lying down. Dr. Kruper advises to use a pillow to prop your head with your arm resting behind it. Your free hand should be used to conduct the self-exam. It’s best to take the index, middle and ring fingers, all together, and use them to feel your breasts. Press down, all around your breast and any surrounding areas, while using a circular motion. Dr. Kruper says that using three fingers is one way to help prevent mistaking normal breast tissue for abnormal lumps. She goes on to explain that it is necessary to use increasing pressure with each pass, this will help make certain that you are feeling not only superficial tissue, but also deep tissue areas. Also, check for unusual discharge from your nipple. Then, switch sides. Your self-exam is not complete if you do not do both sides or complete all steps.
4. Check All The Surrounding Areas Of Your Breasts
To continue in this self-exam checklist, it is important to check the surrounding areas of your breasts. This includes the areas around your collarbone, sternum, below your breasts, and under your arms to your armpits. In this step, you’re looking to use the same circular motions, while increasing pressure as you move through all of these areas. Look for any lumps, abnormalities, and any swelling in your lymph nodes. Dr. Kruper adds that, “what you’re looking for is something that stands out — something that feels like a pea, or a marble or a walnut. Something that definitely feels different than the surrounding breast tissue.”
5. Repeat Every Month, At The Same Time!
This step is important. Every month, at the same time, all of these steps should be repeated. Dr. Kruper advices that menstruating women should pick a time about seven to 10 days after the start of your cycle to ensure there are less cycle-related changes that you’ll encounter during your self-exam. If you are not menstruating, she suggest picking any time during each month, as long as it is consistently around the same time each and every month.
6. If You Find Anything, Note It Down, And Get It Checked Out!
It is a good idea to keep your appointments with your gynecologist, and any annual or routine examinations you may have. Staying on top of your health is the best way to manage any issues, and stay on top of anything that may come up. If you find anything of note, write it down and get it checked out as soon as possible. Check in with your medical team and keep tabs on everything.
For a quick reference guide, check out the infographic below. Feel free to save it or print it out as a reminder each month.
The more you do this, monthly, the better you’ll get at knowing your breasts. Dr. Kruper says, “the most important thing about a breast self-examination is to know your breasts. Many women detect breast cancers or breast lumps themselves and that can be the beginning of an important conversation with your doctor.”