What to Look for During a Breast Self-Exam



You’ve no doubt heard plenty about the debate on whether women need to regularly perform a breast self-exam. It is still recommended; however, unless you know what you are looking for, potential problems could go undetected. It is also important to understand that while there is immense value in breast self-exams, these in no way replace other breast cancer screening tools.

Why the Debate AboutBreast Self-Exam?

According to the American Cancer Society, women should still perform breast self-exams even though research has not supported the exams as a means of making a substantial difference in breast cancer detection or mortality rates. Some have recommended that self-exams are no longer necessary since the evidence does not support an increase of survival rate for those who perform them.

Yet, there are women whose breast cancer was not detected by mammogram but by physical examination. For these women such an exam proved to be beneficial. The decline in breast cancer death rates is due to three factors, one of which is the fact that women reported something different in their breast and the area was biopsied and treated I was warranted.

Knowing What You Are Looking For

Maybe you’ve heard people say, “I know that place as well as the back of my hand!” How well do you actually know the back of your hand? Unless you study it, you probably don’t know it as well as you think you do. Breast self-exam is like that. Unless you do full self-exams on your breasts regularly you probably don’t know them as well as you think you do.

In a nutshell, you are essentially looking for anything out of the ordinary when you do the exam. The catch is you first need to establish what’s ordinary or normal for you. Some women have lumpy breasts – little nodules like BBs can be felt under the skin. Lumpy breasts do not automatically indicate the presence of cancer. There are seven characteristics you’ll want to vote for any lumps you may find in your breast self-exam:

  1. The size of the lump – BB size? Pea size? As big as a grape?
  2. What’s the texture – is it hard, firm or soft?
  3. Does it move or is it in a fixed position?
  4. Where is it located on your breast? Divide your breast into quadrants and determine if the lump is in the upper or lower, inner or outer quadrant.
  5. Do you feel any pain in the lump?
  6. Is there spontaneous discharge from your nipple or can you express anything when you gently squeeze it? What color is the discharge? Is your nipple cracked, dry or flushed looking?
  7. Does the skin covering your breast have dimples or indents in it? Does it look any different than usual?

Take Care of Yourself and Do the Exam

You may hear about the number of false positives that are the result physical breast exams. At the same time consider this: would you rather know your breasts well and consult your doctor if you find something unusual, or skip breast self-exams and eventually find out that you may have breast cancer. Performing a breast self-exam could save your life so it’s worth the time and effort.

At the Internal Medicine Diagnostic Center, we are committed to helping our patients understand how they can be proactive in their own health care. Contact us for more information.