They may lack the bells and whistles of the latest digital tomosynthesis screening equipment, but your hands are a quick and easy tool for the early detection of breast cancer.
Although several studies have shown that there is little benefit, in terms of outcomes, of a self breast exam, the fact that many women do not get regular mammograms is one good reason for encouraging women to continue doing self exams.
"Mammography is felt to be the best tool available in detecting breast cancer at the earliest stage, but we acknowledge that mammography is not a perfect screening tool and not all breast cancers show up on mammogram," says David Edmonson, MD, of theBreast Health Center at Women & Infants Hospital.
Women should do self breast exams once a month at the same time of the month, adds Candace Dyer, MD, medical director of the Breast Health Center at Kent Hospital.
"For a menstruating woman, exams should be three to five days after her period when her breasts are least swollen and tender," Dr. Dyer adds.
The purpose of the self breast exam is to get to know what the breast normally feels like and assess it for changes from that baseline," Dr. Edmonson says. "A classic cancer feels hard as a rock, like the tip of the knuckle. That said, not all cancers feel like that and not all non-cancerous masses are soft and smoothly rounded."
If you feel something in your breast, it may or may not be tender. Dr. Dyer says most tender masses are not cancer. You can also look for:
- Skin or nipple retraction
- Dimpling of the breast
- Nipples pointing in different directions or lower on one side
- Swelling, redness, or change in size of one breast
Typically, most things you will find in your self exam will be non-cancerous, Dr. Edmonson says.
"If it is a new finding, it should be evaluated. Sometimes something as simple as an ultrasound can be done to sort out what it is, and there is no radiation exposure with an ultrasound," he says.
Remember the mammogram
Self breast exams cannot replace a mammogram in your life, however.
"Most cancers don't become palpable until they are at least 1cm in size," Dr. Edmonson says. "That is the true benefit of mammography. It can find these problems prior to their becoming palpable."
Dr. Dyer agrees.
"Most cancers today are not found on self examination. Your doctor should order the appropriate screening for you, based on your personal history, family history and your age," she says.