A lump could save your life, but it can only do so if it’s found. Enter the breast self-examination: By acquainting yourself with your breasts through a regular BSE, you get a feel for what’s supposed to be there and what isn’t. In fact, when it comes to breast cancer, over 20% of the cancers were discovered through a BSE by women familiar enough with their breasts to recognize something new.
Arguments abound over the usefulness of BSEs, and the exam’s detractors argue that women should instead become familiar with the feel and look of their breasts. Familiarity is key, and we contend that the tactile and visual once-over of a BSE best provides this awareness. Besides, it’s an easy, fairly quick exam that lets you find lumps that might grow in the time between mammograms and clinical breast examinations.
While standing in front of a mirror, strike three poses.
Pose 1: Stand straight with your arms at your side.
Pose 2: Raise your elbows and clasp your hands behind your head; flex your chest muscles.
Pose 3: Lean toward the mirror and press your hands firmly against your hips to bring your shoulders and elbows slightly forward.
During each pose, ask yourself if there’s any swelling or contour changes from the last exam, if the skin dimples, if the nipples have changed and if there’s any redness or scaly skin.
You could perform a tactile BSE in the shower or standing in front of the mirror, but when you’re lying down, your breast tissue falls evenly over your chest. This allows an easier, more accurate check.
Step 1: Lie down with a pillow under your right shoulder and your right hand raised over your head.
Step 2: Using your left hand, make small circles about the size of a dime with your fingers’ pads. Make the circles across the entire breast area and armpit. Use light pressure to check tissue right under the skin, heavy pressure to check tissue close to the chest wall and medium pressure to check the tissue in between.
Step 3: Repeat using the fingers of your right hand to check your left breast.
At first, you’ll only identify how each area of the breast feels: Notice how the tissue just outside of the armpit differs from the lower breast tissue, which differs from the tissue beneath the nipple. Some women find drawing a map of their breasts helpful as a reference for normal lumps, bumps and muscular knots.
If you menstruate, perform a BSE when your period is finished to avoid contending with tenderness and swelling. Lumps do appear and disappear during menses; you’re looking for lumps that remain or grow through one complete cycle. If you no longer menstruate, perform a BSE on any easily remembered day of the month.
Don’t panic if you find a lump during a BSE: Only 20 percent of lumps found during BSEs are cancerous. Whether you’re not yet familiar with your breasts or you find an anomaly, discuss any concerns or findings with your doctor; if nothing else, it will provide you with peace of mind.