Don't Stop Doing Your Breast Self Exams Just Because It's Not October

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Don't Stop Doing Your Breast Self Exams Just Because It's Not October: two lemons next to eachother
Jena Ardell/Getty

“I see my gynecologist in September every year,” a friend told me. “So I’ll bring it to her attention then.” The look on my face said it all. My friend’s newly discovered breast lump shouldn’t go unchecked for seven months. It’s never a good idea to procrastinate your health needs and your body’s warning signs, I responded. I’m the perfect example of why that’s true.

I have discovered three lumps during self-breast exams. The first two, discovered ten years apart, were benign. When I felt a new lump two years ago, I promptly brought it to my doctor’s attention. She sent me for an ultrasound and my first mammogram. I was 35 years old at the time.

Both tests confirmed I did have a lump, but the radiologist determined it was nothing of concern. I was told to return in six months for a follow up appointment. I was initially relieved, but about a week after I got the good news, I got a nagging feeling that something was wrong. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the urge to get a second opinion.

After a breast lump biopsy, I learned that my intuition was correct. I had early stage breast cancer. Next up, I had an MRI, genetic testing, and two surgical consults. Eight weeks after I was diagnosed, I had a bilateral, direct-to-implant, nipple-and-skin sparing mastectomy.

Turns out, I am not alone. 5% of breast cancer patients are under the age of forty. Despite the fact that my genetic tests were negative, I have no family history of breast cancer, and I appeared to have minimal risk factors, I became a statistic. One out of every eight women will face an invasive breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime—and I was one of them.

These stats are absolutely intimidating and frightening. However, there’s good news. According to the Young Survivors Coalition, 80% of young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer detected their own breast abnormality. This percentage sends a powerful message. It’s critically important that you do your self exams.

I found my first lump by accident. I was in the shower and was slathering my body with soap when I felt a lump near my armpit. I waited a few weeks, and when it didn’t go away, I visited my doctor. After that lump was removed, self-breast exams became a habit—one I’m very thankful for.

Because of my experiences, I urge women to do self-breast exams, every single month. Is it perfect? No. Breast cancer is a tricky beast. It can circumvent mammograms, ultrasounds, visual and touch exams, and even MRIs if the cancer is small enough. However, a woman knows her own body best—and if she senses something is off, it’s off.

This doesn’t mean that every lump and bump is cancer. In fact, there are numerous reasons why a breast lump can appear—most of which isn’t malignancy. However, I’m of the belief that’s it better to know than to blissfully ignore. It’s cliché but true: early detection saves lives.

I’m thankful for everyday women and celebrities who have spoken out about the importance of knowing their bodies and being assertive when it comes to their health. Shannen Doherty, Angelina Jolie, Sheryl Crow, Rita Wilson, Hoda Kotb, Giuliana Ranic, Wanda Sykes, and many others have all shared their journeys and encouraged women to make sure they’re doing their self-exams and know their family history, when possible.

Unfortunately, I hear from many women who just wait for their doctor to check their breasts during their annual well-woman exam. However, a lot of women don’t go yearly—therefore putting many years between breast checks. I’ve also had women tell me that they are inspired by Breast Cancer Awareness Month to do their breast self-exams, but they dwindle on their commitment by Christmas.

I understand being busy. As a mom of four, I’m the definition of busy. I also have empathy for the burden of astronomical medical costs. Several women have confessed to me that they don’t do self-exams out of fear. What if they discover something suspicious? How terrifying would that be?

There are unfortunately many barriers to women getting the care they need. However, breast self-exams are free. All you need are your own hands and a mirror, plus a once-a-month reminder set on your phone. If you do find something suspicious, bring it to your doctor’s attention ASAP.

As someone who learned I had early, but quite aggressive, breast cancer, please don’t wait until October to examine and learn about your breasts. You should know them well—what they look and feel like. Have there been any changes? Letting a year—or two or three—go between feeling the girls can make a life-or-death difference.

You are worth the five minutes a month that it takes to examine your own breasts. There is nothing magical about Breast Cancer Awareness Month or your annual gynecological exam. Breast cancer waits for no one.