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Breast self-exam

Definition

A breast self-exam is a check-up a woman does at home to look for changes or problems in the breast tissue. Many women feel that doing this is important to their health.

However, experts do not agree about the benefits of breast self-exams in finding breast cancer or saving lives. Talk to your health care provider about whether breast self-exams are right for you.

Alternative Names

Self-examination of the breast; BSE; Breast cancer - BSE; Breast cancer screening - self exam

Information

The best time to do a monthly self-breast exam is about 3 to 5 days after your period starts. Do it at the same time every month. Your breasts are not as tender or lumpy at this time in your monthly cycle.

If you have gone through menopause, do your exam on the same day every month.

Begin by lying on your back. It is easier to examine all breast tissue if you are lying down.

  • Place your right hand behind your head. With the middle fingers of your left hand, gently yet firmly press down using small motions to examine the entire right breast.
  • Next, sit or stand. Feel your armpit, because breast tissue goes into that area.
  • Gently squeeze the nipple, checking for discharge. Repeat the process on the left breast.
  • Use one of the patterns shown in the diagram to make sure that you are covering all of the breast tissue.

Next, stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your side.

  • Look at your breasts directly and in the mirror. Look for changes in skin texture, such as dimpling, puckering, indentations, or skin that looks like an orange peel.
  • Also note the shape and outline of each breast.
  • Check to see if the nipple turns inward.

Do the same with your arms raised above your head.

Your goal is get used to the feel of your breasts. This will help you to find anything new or different. If you do, call your provider right away.

References

Mallory MA, Golshan M. Examination techniques: roles of the physician and patient in evaluating breast disease. In: Bland KI, Copeland EM, Klimberg VS, Gradishar WJ, eds. The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Disorders. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 25.

Sandadi S, Rock DT, Orr JW, Valea FA. Breast disease: detection, management, and surveillance of breast disease. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 15.

US Preventive Services Task Force website. Breast cancer: screening. www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/breast-cancer-screening1. Updated January 2016. Accessed October 14, 2017.


Review Date: 9/9/2017
Reviewed By: Debra G. Wechter, MD, FACS, general surgery practice specializing in breast cancer, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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