Do Breast Self-Exams Really Help?

The most common form of cancer in women is breast cancer. More than 1 million cases are diagnosed annually around the world. In America, the number is close to 200,000. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year alone. Given these statistics, it is easy to see why early detection of breast cancer is so important.


Breast self examination, mammograms and clinical examinations are the most commonly used tools to detect breast cancer. Even though none of these methods is foolproof, they are the only ones known. It has been widely believed for many years that breast self exams played an important role in early diagnosis. But a recent study carried out in Shanghai, China has proven that breast examination without mammograms does not affect the mortality rates. Over 80% of lumps discovered in the breast are not cancerous. This means that relying on breast self exams alone is not adequate. It is more important that a woman gets a mammogram done regularly.

Self examination of the breast is important for a woman to notice any changes that occur. A woman should know how her breasts look and feel normally. This is the same for women who have had breast implants. In case of a change, one should consult a physician. The physician will know what needs to be done next.

Following are the guidelines to carry out a proper breast self exam. Women who are still menstruating should check their breast at the same time every month after their menstrual cycle. Post menopausal women can check their breasts at any time. Women between 20 and 30 years of age should have a clinical breast exam every 3 years. Women over the age of 40 should have a clinical breast examination and a mammogram every year. Women with a history of cancer, especially breast cancer, in the family should start getting mammograms done annually from the age of 30.

According to a report by another research group, self examination of breasts can save lives only if it is done the right way. Researchers found that women who were checking their breasts properly were less likely to develop cancer after two years as opposed to the women who didn’t check their breasts the right way. A doctor is the best person to go to for information on the correct way of examining one’s breasts.

While examining her breasts, a woman should look for unusual signs. The two main changes to bear in mind are:

  • A hard lump in the breast or near the underarm
  • Any change in the way the breasts look or feel

In case a lump is felt in one breast, the other breast should be checked as well. If there is a lump there as well, then it is probably normal and will disappear in a couple of days. However, if there is just one lump, then a visit to the doctor is in order.

Other signs to keep a watch for are:

  • Any changes on the skin of the breast like dimpling or ridges
  • An inward pushing nipple
  • Swelling, redness, pain
  • A rash or an itchy sore
  • Discharge from the nipple that is not milk
  • Change in texture, shape or color of the breast

Breast self exams may not be fool proof but they can definitely alert women to changes in their breasts. With regular mammograms, they could help to detect cancerous lumps sooner rather than later.


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