How, When, And Why You Should Be Doing A Self Breast Exam This Month — And Every Month

by Rachel Garlinghouse

After finding my third breast lump in ten years, I was certain that once again I had a benign mass. When I received the news that my breast lump appeared normal, I was elated. However, a few days later, I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong. I sought a second opinion, had a biopsy, and then was told those four, jarring words no woman ever wants to hear: you have breast cancer.

I found each of my breast lumps by doing a self-breast exam. Of course, I didn’t know that by feeling a knot under my skin if I was in the clear or not. But doing the exam and finding a lump meant I could then bring it to the attention of my gynecologist. She helped me take the next and necessary steps to figure out what I was dealing with. The key to early breast cancer detection, in my experience, is doing a monthly self-breast exam, along with seeing your doctor on a yearly basis and getting mammograms starting as early as recommended.

I’ve shared my story with millions of readers over the past three years, and I receive messages asking me questions about self-breast exams. I’m not a doctor, a nurse, or a medical professional of any kind. However, women want to know when, how, and why they should be doing monthly self-breast exams. They don’t always receive this information from their doctors, unfortunately. The answers to their burning questions can be found from experts.

Who Should Do Self-Breast Exams

Some women have told me they don’t need to do a self exam because they don’t have a family history of breast cancer. Well, I didn’t either, and only 5-10% of those diagnosed with breast cancer have an inherited risk. Yes, you read that correctly. This means the vast majority of breast cancer cases are seemingly out of the blue. Also, approximately 11% of breast cancer cases occur in women under age forty-five. Since mammograms are generally not recommended for women until they reach age forty, this leaves many years where a younger woman’s cancer can go undetected. Men account for about 1% of breast cancer cases.

Who Is at Risk of Developing Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can occur in men or women, though the vast majority are women over the age of fifty. The CDC shares that the risk factors for breast cancer include age, genetic mutations, reproductive history, personal history, family history, your breast density, medication history, and breast health history. Additionally, a woman’s level of physical activity, weight, hormone history, alcohol consumption, and reproductive history are risk factors. Smoking, exposure to toxins, and hormonal changes due to working evening shifts might also increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

When You Should Do Your Self-Breast Exam

The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding checking your boobs when they are the most tender. The goal isn’t to be uncomfortable, but instead to be in a place where you can be thorough instead of working to avoid tenderness. Because of hormone fluctuations, there can be breast tissue changes throughout your cycle. They recommend waiting until you’re period is wrapped up, the time when your breast tissue begins to decrease in swelling. The best time to do the exam, generally speaking, is the week after your period is over. Whenever you choose to do your exam, Johns Hopkins says to do it at the same time of the month, each month.

How to Do a Self-Breast Exam

I don’t know about you, but I was never taught how to do a self-breast exam. I believe I received one handout at an appointment many years ago. I found my first lump by accident, while washing my body with a loofah in the shower. After my first one, I decided to learn how to self breast exams and to make them a monthly routine. Thankfully, the magic of the internet is here to save the day and teach us how to properly do an exam. I encourage you to watch a video and then put it into practice. Essentially, you need to look and feel. Examine your breasts in the mirror head-on and also with your arms up, looking for any dimpling, discharge, or discoloration. You also need to do a touch-exam, both standing up and lying down. This should be done once a month, every month, preferably, as shared earlier, the week after your period.

Why It’s Important to Do Self-Breast Exams

Self exams are important in that you get to know your own body, what your baseline is. This helps you in the future. If you notice anything off, you will know early on rather than waiting until you’re considered old enough for a mammogram. Additionally, not all doctors do clinical breast exams on patients. Plus, despite recommendations, not every woman goes for her annual check up in which the doctor may or may not do a clinical breast exam. The old cliché is true. Early detection saves lives. Leaving cancer untreated for months or even years can have devastating results. By doing your self exam and seeing your doctor yearly, as well as getting mammograms starting at age forty, you’re arming yourself with as much protection as possible. Breast self exams shouldn’t be your only screening tool, but they can certainly be an important part of your breast awareness.

What You Should Do Next If You See or Feel Anything Suspicious

If you feel or see any changes in your breasts, call your gynecologist for an appointment. They can help you determine the next best steps. Sometimes this is just a clinical exam. Other times you may be sent for an ultrasound, mammogram, or both. If more imaging is needed, a breast MRI may be in order and a biopsy may be ordered. The results of these will help your doctor know what your plan of action should be.

There are several types of breast cancer and many risk factors, which can feel uncontrollable to a woman. I completely understand the fear and avoidance. Doing a self-breast exam opens you up to the possibility of discovering something suspicious. However, there is one thing we can control and that’s if we choose to prioritize our breast health and decide that we matter enough to take a few minutes a month to check our own breasts.