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Breast Cancer Self-screening - How to Perform & What to Look For?

What is a Breast Self-Screening/Exam?


A breast self-exam for breast cancer awareness is a step-by-step inspection of your breasts that you do on your own. It is an important way of finding any breast abnormalities in terms of shape, size, and visual appeal by looking and feeling. This helps females be aware of breast cancer, and its early symptoms, and increases the chances of timely successful treatment.

If you feel a change in your breast of any kind, feel free to speak to your doctor. Though most changes detected by women during self-examination are benign (non-cancerous), there might be some changes signalling toward breast cancer.

However, most medical centres don’t advise women to perform routine breast self-exams as they feel they are inadequate in early breast cancer screening. Having said that, gynecologists recommend women go for routine breast self-exam as they believe it is important for women to be aware of their breasts’ anatomy and report any adverse changes immediately.


Why Should You Perform Breast Self-Exam?


A breast self-exam is performed by women on a routine basis that helps them have breast cancer awareness and understand the normal anatomy of their breasts by the look and feel. Since a lot of breast cancer symptoms may often go unnoticed for a long time, it is important that you notice any particular changes in your breast and report them to the doctor immediately. These changes may include one breast being different from the other, an abnormal change in your breasts, or a pain that doesn’t go by on its own.

During pregnancy or lactation, a woman’s breasts go through multiple changes which may or may not be a sign of breast cancer. Although a breast self-exam isn’t really a reliable or fool-proof technique for diagnosing breast cancer, most women with breast cancer diagnosis admitted to having discovered a lump as the initial symptom during the breast self-exam. This is a potent reason for doctors to recommend women be familiar with the normal shape, size, and consistency of their breasts.


How to Prepare for a Breast Self-Exam?


The best way to prepare for a breast self-exam is listed below:

  • Speak to Your Doctor for a Detailed Demonstration

A breast self-exam is not about moving your hands and fingers randomly on your breasts. A breast self-exam is aimed at finding any anomalies; hence, it is always recommended to ask your doctor for detailed instructions and techniques on how to perform one on yourself. Your doctor can recommend you watch some videos or help you with a pictorial presentation of the same.


  • Perform a Breast Self-Exam When Your Breasts are Least Tender

Your breast tissues go through changes every month during your menstrual cycle when your hormones fluctuate much. Some women experience pre-menstrual breast swelling and tenderness which automatically decreases when periods start. A week after your period ends is usually the best time to perform a breast self-exam as your breasts are in their normal state then.


What to Expect During a Breast Self-Exam?


Start With a Visual Examination

To start a breast self-exam, stand in front of a mirror with your arms at both sides after removing your shirt and bra. Make sure the room has adequate lighting and the mirror is clean enough to see any minuscule changes. Start by visual inspection of your breasts following the steps below:

  • Stand face forward and examine your breasts for any puckering or dimpling. Carefully examine your breasts for any change in shape, size, and symmetrical balance.
  • Examine your breasts for inverted nipples (nipples turned in).
  • Carefully inspect your breasts in the mirror with your hands pressed against your hips.
  • Raise your arms over your head and press the palms together. Inspect your breasts closely in this position.
  • Gently lift your breasts to check if ridges down the bottom are symmetrical to each other.


Examine Your Breasts Using Hands

Now comes the manual part of the breast self-exam. Here are some common ways to perform it:

  • Lie down on your back on your bed or any other hard surface. When you lie down, it becomes easier to feel your breast as that’s when your breast tissue spreads and becomes thinner.
  • You can also do the same in the shower by lathering your fingers and breasts with soap. Doing it in the shower with soap all over makes it easier for your hands and fingers to glide smoothly over your breasts.


Tips to Consider While Performing Breast Self-Exam

While performing a breast self-exam at home, it may go wrong at times. Here are some simple yet crucial tips to get it right every time:


  • Use Your Fingers’ Pads

Most women make the mistake of using their fingertips instead of pads. Always use the pads of your three middle fingers for performing a breast self-exam. If using your finger pads feels challenging, try to use another sensitive part of your hands like the palms or the back of your fingers.


  • Apply Different Pressure Levels

The objective of performing a breast self-exam is to feel the depth of the breast at different levels by applying appropriate pressure so you can feel the entire breast tissue. Understanding the kind of pressure to apply at specific places is extremely important. For instance, apply light pressure if you’re trying to feel the breast tissue closest to your skin. Use medium pressure if you are trying to go a bit deeper and a firm pressure while feeling the tissue that is closest to the chest and the ribs. If you’re still unsure of the different pressure levels to apply during breast self-exam, speak to your doctor for guided advice.


  • Do It Patiently

A breast self-exam involves multiple steps and careful observation. It is best performed carefully and patiently. Always make sure you’ve adequate time at hand for a detailed breast self-exam to have clear findings.


  • Follow a Methodical Pattern

Make sure you follow a methodical approach and a careful pattern while performing a breast self-exam. Start with your collarbone and then move your fingers towards your nipples. Once done there, move on to the next section. You can carry a picture to guide you and watch it while performing the self-exam or let a guided video help you do the same.


Breast Self-Exam Results

The look and feel of your breasts change as you age and feel different during different stages. Most women get scared of finding a lump during breast self-exam and are petrified discussing the same with their doctor considering it one of the early breast cancer symptoms. However, your breast may feel differently during, before, and after your menstrual cycle making it normal.

Breasts often feel differently in different places, for instance, it may feel a bit firmer along the bottom, which is normal. It is important to know when to see your doctor and shun the rest.


When to See Your Doctor?

See your doctor immediately if you notice the following signs:

  • A firm lump or a knot-like appearance near your underarm
  • There is a change in the way your breasts look or feel, it appears thick, prominently fuller which is distinct from their nearby tissue
  • Apparent dimples, bulges, puckers, or ridges on the skin of your breasts
  • There is any recent change in the way your nipples look, for instance, they are inverted (pushed in) instead of protruding out
  • Unexplained pain, redness, warmth, or swelling
  • Blood discharge from the nipples
  • Rashes, itching, sores, or scales


Based on the findings of your breast self-exam and the current symptoms and complaints, your doctor may further order a clinical breast examination including an ultrasound, physical exam, and mammogram to rule out any possibility of breast cancer.

The trick lies in seeking expert medical care for breast cancer screening in time to save yourself from the deadly breast cancer

Medanta Medical Team
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