It’s The Last Day Of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — Here’s The Best Way To Do A Self Exam

Breast cancer can be a scary subject to talk about. Most women have been personally affected by breast cancer in one way or another — maybe we’ve had it, or someone we know has had it. It’s the second most common cause of cancer among women in the United States, with 250,000 diagnosed cases and 42,000 deaths per year. 

breast cancer statistics breast cancer statistics

The uncertainties and unknowns of breast cancer make this disease much more formidable than it needs to be. Though we should all consult with our doctors about risk, prevention, and detection of breast cancer, a trip to the doctor’s office isn’t the only way to check for the cancer’s telltale lumps. Performing monthly self exams of your breasts at home is a good way to detect possible breast cancer. We’re going to tell you how you should really be doing your self exams, what to look for, and when to consult your doctor.


The Correct Way to Perform a Self Exam

Knowing how to properly perform a self exam is critical to early detection of lumps. There are a few different ways we should all be performing self exams to ensure no area is left unchecked. The above video gives a good visual representation of the correct way to perform self exams.
Visual exams should be performed in front of a mirror using a few different stances: with your arms at your sides, your arms overhead, and hands on your hips with flexed chest muscles. Look for anything unusual in your breasts in each of these positions, including:
      • A difference in shape or size

      • Dimpling of the skin or nipple

      • Areas of redness

      • Nipple abnormalities or discharge

      • Accentuated surface veins

      • Unusual swelling of an upper arm

breast self exam

You should also perform self exams lying down, as this causes the breast tissue to spread out more evenly and can make it easier to detect lumps. Lay down and elevate your shoulder with a pillow or blanket, raise your arm and rest your head on your hand. Use the three middle fingers of the opposite hand to feel for lumps, thickening, or swelling of the breast or underarms, and enlarged lymph nodes. Then, place your arm by your side and feel for abnormalities starting in the underarm area and moving toward your breast; repeat these steps for both sides of your body.

When to Consult a Doctor

Cancer isn’t the only cause of breast lumps. Fibrocystic breast disease, fibroadenoma, lipoma, and breast or milk cysts are all noncancerous causes of breast lumps — in fact, many of these ailments are fairly common, especially in younger women. I was doing a self exam a couple years ago when I felt a large lump in my right breast. I started to panic and scheduled an appointment with my doctor, who said it was just a breast cyst.
Cancerous lumps tend to have a couple distinguishing features that differ from noncancerous lumps. Cancerous lumps will often feel hard and like they have edges, almost like a rock. They tend to be immobile in the breast. Cysts and other noncancerous lumps, on the other hand, are smooth, slightly softer, and a bit more mobile. But when in doubt, it’s always best to get your doctor’s opinion, just in case. 
**While breast self exams are extremely important and should be started at a young age, they are not a substitute for mammograms. Mammograms should be started at the age of 40 for people with average risk and should be done yearly. If you have dense breast tissue, opt for the new 3D technology which unfortunately can cost extra out of pocket. Yearly mammograms can detect cancer years before a self exam. If you find a lump or need a mammogram and don’t have health insurance coverage or are worried about the cost, call 1-877-GO-KOMEN or your local Planned Parenthood for a referral.


Early detection of breast cancer is critical to recovery. If you have a story or experience with breast cancer you’d like to share, we invite you to leave a comment below.

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