Allyn Rose, former Miss America contender and founder of The Previvor Foundation, was made aware of the importance of self breast exams at a very young age after losing her mother to breast cancer when she was 16—she eventually lost her grandmother and great Aunt as well. “Despite these losses, I felt a little lost about how and when to start, and as I got older, I realized that if I was feeling this way, other women must be too,” she says. “So, I made it my mission to learn how to give myself a proper exam, and then I encouraged other women to do the same.”
Rose started her exams in her early 20s, but remembers it wasn’t until several years later that she really became comfortable with the concept. “It took a while to learn the terrain of my breasts and get to know ‘my normal,’ she says. “I’ve since created the hashtag campaign #SelfExamGram to teach women in a digestible way just how easy it is to do an exam.”
New York gynecologist Dr. Carolyn Delucia has been teaching women how to do self-exams for more than 30 years. “I encourage patients to do them monthly, seven to 10 days after their period begins,” she explains. “A lump may feel like a hard grain of sand or a round, mobile marble. You should also check in your armpit for swollen lymph nodes, which would feel like a lima bean, and around your nipple for discoloration, scaliness or discharge.”
That said, the American Cancer Society’s position is that there’s not enough evidence to show these athome exams make a difference in cancer detection. Yet, Dr. Delucia feels strongly that we should use every detection tool we have. “As a woman, and knowing that 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer in their lifetime, self-exams should begin as soon as breasts develop, and annual mammograms should begin at age 40, unless there is a family history of breast cancer and a doctor makes a different recommendation.”
Morgan Hare, cofounder of the AiRS Foundation, explains that while mammograms can help discover cancer before a lump is felt, 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important. “Results from many decades of research clearly show that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy) and chemotherapy, and are more likely to be cured.”
How To Do a Self Exam
Although most medical organizations have their own variation, the American Breast Cancer Foundation’s best practices include the following three techniques, which should be performed using the pads of your three middle fingers, and light, medium and firm pressure.
Start at the outer edge of each breast and move your fingers around in a circular motion to cover the entire breast.
Start at your underarm area and move your fingers downward and back up until your entire breast has been checked.
Start at the outer edge and move your fingers toward your nipple and back to the edge until your entire breast has been checked in small, wedge-shaped sections.
A good body oil, balm or butter can make a self-exam more effective and enjoyable. These three hit the mark: Colleen Rothschild “Breast” Friend Self-Exam Butter ($42, Poppy & Someday Breast Oil ($40), and Banyan Botanicals Breast Care Balm ($22).