Globally, breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women. In the U.S., one in eight women suffers from this life-threatening disease. While medical advances have reduced breast cancer-related deaths, the numbers are still worrying as breast cancer still has a high mortality rate. However, if detected early at the localized stage, breast cancer has a survival rate as high as 99%. One of the first and significant steps to detect breast cancer is self-examining your breasts.

When to start taking breast self-examination?

Start examining your breasts regularly at about age 20 and continue doing so for life. Do it at least once every month. The ebb and flow of hormones affect your breasts before and during your menstrual cycle. You may notice tenderness and changes in size and/or shape. Therefore, the ideal time to check your breasts is 3-5 days after your period begins. Whether during your menstrual years, pregnancy, or after menopause, perform breast self-exams on the same day every month.

What are the steps for breast self-examination?

  1. Start with observing both your breasts in the mirror. Keep your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. Notice the size, shape, color of the areola and nipples. Healthy breasts are almost similar in shape and size, have no visible swelling or unusual growth, or change in vein patterns. If you have a large bust, lift your breast to check the inframammary fold.
  1. Repeat the same steps with your arms raised.
  1. Next, lie down and use the finger pads to feel your breasts. Use your left hand to feel your right breast and your right hand for your left breast. Keep the fingers together and move them firmly around your breasts in a circular motion. Ensure that you cover the entire breast by starting at the nipple and making the circles larger until you reach your armpit and inframammary region. Apart from the circular motion of your fingers, move them vertically, diagonally, and horizontally too. Varied movements help you cover and feel all the tissues of your breasts.
  1. Now repeat the same hand movements when sitting and standing. You can also do this step in the shower as it is easier to press your fingers down on wet and slippery skin.
  1. In addition to the steps mentioned above, remember these three pressure levels while doing breast self-exam:
    • Exert light pressure for the skin and tissue just beneath your breasts
    • Put medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts
    • Use firmer pressure to examine the deep tissues down to your ribcage

What should you look for during breast self-examination?

The one-line answer is anything that looks or feels different. Consult your doctor if you notice one or more of these signs.

  • A node, a lump, or a knot that feels like a pea, marble, or walnut
  • Swelling, dimpling, bulging, or puckering of the skin
  • Nipple inversion
  • Rash, soreness, and redness
  • Pain in breasts
  • Changes in the color of your nipples or areola
  • Fluid discharge

To ensure a healthy body, women should perform breast self-exams regularly—at least one a month.