How to Do a Breast Exam at Home

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Though Breast Cancer Awareness Month has come to an end, breast cancer is an ongoing battle that thousands of women fight every day—it’s the most common cancer around the world. According to BreastCancer.org, a nonprofit organization providing education and resources for those afflicted by the disease, about 13 percent of women (1 in 8) in the U.S. are going to develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Self breast exams are something we can easily do at home to check in with our breasts each month and become aware of any possible changes.

“Self breast exams have received vary reviews in the medical literature questioning their value,” says New York OBGYN Carolyn Delucia, MD. “I however, have seen many women who identified their own breast mass by doing their monthly self exam. The exam is recommended once a month, seven to 10 days after the first day of bleeding with menses. I feel women should use all the tools we have at our ‘fingertips’ in order to detect breast cancer as early as possible: mammogram, self breast exam and physician exam. I always say, ‘Early detection is our only protection.'”

According to BreastCancer.org, “breast self-examination can be a useful and important screening tool, especially when combined with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammography, ultrasound and/or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or both.” These are the five steps the organization outlines.

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Step 1: Examine Your Breasts in a Mirror With Hands on Hips

Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. Here’s what you should look for: Breasts that are their usual size, shape and color, and breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling. If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention: Dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin; a nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out); redness, soreness, rash, or swelling.

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Step 2: Raise Your Arms, Examine Your Breasts and Look for Signs of Breast Fluid

Raise your arms and look for the same changes mentioned in Step 1. Also look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples, which could be a watery, milky or yellow fluid, or blood.

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Step 4: Feel for Breast Lumps While Lying Down

Next, check for breast lumps or abnormalities by feeling your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast, and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Press down with your fingers and move them in a circular motion that’s about the size of a quarter (or an inch around). “You are feeling for small masses the size of a tiny bead or lymph nodes that would feel like a lima bean,” says Dr. Delucia.

Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side—from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage. Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women.

Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.

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Step 5: Feel Your Breasts for Lumps While Standing or Sitting

Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in step 4.

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