Cancer Prevention and Early Detection: How to Perform a Breast Self-Examination

Most breast problems present a palpable abnormality. Early detection leads to early investigation and treatment, and for this reason it is good to be in the habit of self-examination on a regular basis. Women of all ages should perform self-examination since breast problems can occur at any age.

When should a breast self-examination be performed?

The best time of the month to perform self-examination is after menstruation, when the breast tissue is softer and lumps are more likely to be felt. Immediately prior to menstruation the breast becomes naturally lumpy and often tender – features that can disguise a problem if one is present.

For women who are post-menstrual, or who have had a hysterectomy, a suitable time should be chosen – for example the 1st day of the month. Examination more frequently than this is probably not necessary and may lead to increased anxiety.

A woman who regularly examines her breasts will get a very clear idea of her normal breast texture and consistency, and will help her to notice if something is different.

Steps to the self-examination

Outlined below is one method of self-examination. Individual hospitals and specialists may advise slightly different methods, but the principles are the same. It goes without saying that if anything is found to be abnormal then it should be examined by your doctor or a breast specialist.

In front of a mirror – hands at side:

Stand in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips. Look at the breast for any of the following:

  •  Asymmetry
  •  Lumps or swellings
  •  Dimples
  •  Ulceration
  •  Changes in skin colour
  •  Nipple retraction
  •  Nipple discharge

Compare one side with the other.

In front of mirror – with hands up:

Repeat the above inspection of the breasts with the hands raised above the head. Remember to look at the under surface of the breast, especially if the breast is large. Mirror examinations should also be done looking at the breast side-on.

In the shower:

Starting with the right side. Place the right hand above your head to “spread” the breast tissue across the chest wall. Using the flat of the left hand, examine the breast in circular motions. Make sure to cover each quadrant of the breast and end by moving your hand up into the axilla (armpit). Remember part of the breast called the axillary tail extends up to the edge of the armpit.

What to feel for:

  • Lumps or thickenings (may be hard or soft, big or small, or may just feel like “something different” from usual)
  • Prominent one-sided lumpiness. (Usually lumpiness when present is similar on both sides)
  • Swellings or lumps in the axilla (armpit)
  • Areas of tenderness

Always compare sides. Once finished examining the right breast, repeat the same procedure for the other side.

Lying down on your side:

Lie down with one hand behind your head and a pillow under your shoulder. Using the other hand palpate the breast, feeling for the same features mentioned above. Once again, use circular motions with the flat of the hand and don’t forget to examine the axilla (armpit).

Finally, gently squeeze the nipple to check for discharge. Repeat this procedure lying on the opposite side.

What should you do if you find anything unusual?

Don’t panic! It could be many things other than cancer. However, check with your GP or doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts, for the benefit of your health and peace of mind.

If you found this article useful, then why not take a look at Cancer Uncensored – Your Step By Step Guide to Cancer Prevention, Early Detection and Cancer Survival.


Cancer Uncensored
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