How & When to Check for Signs of Breast Cancer

There’s never a wrong time to check for breast cancer. Regularly performing self-exams can alert women to abnormal lumps and dimples long before their next mammogram. 40% of all breast cancer is initially discovered by women performing at-home breast exams. 

While you probably won’t start getting routine mammograms until your 40s, there’s no harm in performing at-home self-breast exams at any age, especially if you have a family history of cancer or are especially prone to breast cancer. 

Breast Cancer Symptoms

Before you begin your at-home examination, make sure you know what you’re looking and feeling for. Breast cancer can manifest in different types of visual symptoms. The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

Performing an At-Home Breast Examination

When performing an at-home breast examination, there are three different ways you should check for abnormalities: standing in front of a mirror, in the shower, and lying down. These steps should only take about a minute and shouldn’t be hard to work into your day every couple of months. Here is how to perform these self-exams:

In Front of the Mirror

With your chest bare and your arms at your sides, examine your breasts from the front and side, checking for abnormalities or inconsistencies in the tissue you don’t recognize. Then, raise your arms above your head, and examine your breasts from the front and side again. Having your arms raised will show you any changes in shape, swelling, the shape of the nipple, or the appearance of dimples.

In the Shower

When you’re next in the shower, use this exercise to check for lumps. First, starting with your left breast, raise your left arm behind your head and use the pads of your middle three fingers to apply pressure. Move your fingers, starting from the armpit, towards the nipple, pushing into the breast tissue as you move laterally. Repeat on the other side with your right arm up, and make sure to feel around the armpit area for any hard knots or abnormalities. Doing this in the shower is preferable because the water will reduce friction during your rubbing, and most women find it more comfortable to do it this way. 

Lying Down

The last step is to check your breasts while you are lying down. This is important because you want to cover all of your bases. The breast tissue falls in a different way lying down than it does when you are standing up. In this position, the breast tissue is the most evenly spread out across your chest wall.

When checking your right breast, you’ll want to put a pillow under your right shoulder and have your right arm raised above your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your middle fingers across your right breast from armpit to sternum. Make shapes with your fingers–vertical lines, circles, figure-8s–to guarantee full breast coverage. At the end, squeeze your nipple slightly to check for any discharge. 

What to Do if You Feel Something

If you feel something abnormal during these at-home exams, don’t panic. Contact your doctor, but be aware that 8 out of 10 lumps are non-cancerous. And, be familiar with what your breasts typically feel like since many can fluctuate in size and firmness during different menstrual cycle stages. This helps you know note abnormalities more confidently.

Checking for breast abnormalities routinely can save your life by detecting breast cancer early. It takes very little time, has a huge payoff, and can detect cancerous lumps before you reach the age of recommended breast cancer screenings.

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