Self-examinations aide in early detection of breast cancer

Self-examinations for breast cancer are increasingly controversial and becoming less promoted due to “provoking a lot of anxiety” because people “aren’t sure what is a lump and what isn’t,” said Dr. Susan Branton, of UPMC Susquehanna’s Breast Health Center.

However, she said, they still do have some utility, particularly for people younger than 40, at which age women are typically urged to get screened.

Those unable to or unsure of how to check themselves can have a professional do the work or walk them through the best practices via their primary care doctor or a gynecologist.

The technique is the same regardless of age, sex or breast size, Branton said, although sensitivity may vary based on breast size or tissue density.

Models often are used to help demonstrate self-checks as well as help people learn the differences between lumps, cysts, thick tissue and other textures of the breast.

Many clinics also offer materials such as instruction cards to help guide people through the process.

According to National Breast Health Foundation Inc., adult women should perform a self-examination “at least once a month.” The organization states that exams can help people become familiar with how their breasts typically look and feel so they more easily notice any changes.

Self-examinations should be performed as follows:


Use the pads of your fingers and make circular patterns around the entire breast and armpit area, starting from the outsides and moving toward the center. Take note of any lumps, thickened areas or hardened knots.


Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides, as well as with your arms raised overhead. Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles and look for those changes again. It’s important to note that the left and right breasts most likely will not match exactly.


When lying down, breast tissue spreads evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. Move the pads of your left hand fingers around your right breast in small circular motions, checking the entire breast and armpit areas. Use light, medium and firm pressure to check for differences. Squeeze the nipple to check for discharge and lumps. Repeat for your left breast.

SOURCE: National Breast Health Foundation Inc.