On Your Health

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How to Give Yourself a Breast Exam in Five Easy Steps

Some 40 percent of breast cancers are discovered by women, during breast self-exams. That’s a big number, and it shows how important a self-exam can be. Although the idea of a monthly self-check can feel daunting, you don’t have to make it complicated and you don't need to be an expert on breast cancer to do yourself a great deal of good with a quick and easy exam. All you really need to know are a few simple techniques.

The goal is to remember how your breasts look and feel normally, which makes it easier to spot or feel anything abnormal if it appears. If you do notice that something has changed, call your doctor but don’t panic. Many changes we notice in our breasts are harmless.

In fact, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, eight out of 10 lumps are not cancerous. Says Dr. Lacy Parker, an OB-GYN at Lakeside Women’s Hospital, "Women are most likely to detect breast changes, but not all of the lumps identified will be cancer. That's why it is important to seek an exam by a physician promptly when you note a change. Your doctor will determine what further testing you require."

Ideally, you should do a self-check every month. Do it at the same time every month, or pick a specific day of the month you can always remember, like your own birthday (just don’t pick something that happened on the 31st, since not all months are 31 days long).

Another tip: if your breasts become tender and swollen during your monthly cycle, choose a different time for your self-exam. Dr. Parker says, "I recommend performing a self-exam at the same point in your cycle each month (the day after your period has finished is a good time), as your tissue can fluctuate depending on hormonal factors."

Five easy steps to performing a breast self-exam

1. Stand in front of a mirror looking straight on and do a visual inspection, with your arms down by your sides and shoulders straight.

  • Is your skin even?
  • Is there any puckering, dimpling, bulging or thickening?
  • Are your breasts doing their usual thing?
  • Do the size, shape and color look right?
  • Has your nipple changed position or direction?
  • Any rashes or redness, soreness or swelling?

2. Raise your arms overhead and take another look, asking yourself the same questions.

3. Double check your nipples for any trace of fluid leakage or discharge.

4. Lie down on your back and feel each breast with the opposite hand.

  • Use the pads of your fingers and a medium-firm touch, systematically feel your whole breast — feel in vertical rows, kind of like mowing a lawn.
  • Or, start at the nipple and make a series of larger and larger circles. Press firmer to feel all the way to your ribcage and press lighter to feel closer to the surface.

5. Feel your breasts while you're upright. The shower is a great place for this because you’re already naked, and the water makes it easier to glide your finger pads over your skin. Vary the pressure. Press firmer to feel all the way to your ribcage and press lighter to feel closer to the surface. 

If you see or feel something unusual, do not panic. Call your doctor and describe what you see or feel and make an appointment to get it checked out. Remember: you are your own best health advocate. Take care of yourself! Dr. Parker confirms, "Self-exams can make a big difference. Women are more likely to detect their own breast changes than are physicians, since they know their bodies and tissues the best."

A final note on prevention: get screened!

Remember, a breast self-exam is not a substitute for regular mammograms. Mammograms can spot irregularities, cancerous and otherwise, long before a visual or physical exam can. A mammogram is a crucial part of a woman’s preventive care plan, particularly when a woman is in her 40s through her 70s.

Says Dr. Parker, "Mammography is currently our best tool for detecting cancer, but these are only performed annually after the age of 40." She is in favor of both mammograms and breast self-awareness, since "breast self-exams can detect problems that may pop up in between these important tests."

Because 90 percent of breast cancer cases can be successfully treated if detected early, INTEGRIS encourages women to get a mammogram each year if they are over 40. INTEGRIS uses the latest, most accurate, life-saving breast imaging technology. This means false positives are reduced and 40 percent more invasive cancers are found at earlier, more treatable stages. Schedule your mammogram now. Call 1-855-MY-MAMMO (1-855-696-2666), or talk with your doctor about how often you should receive a mammogram, based on family history, risk factors and age.

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