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Breast Self-exam

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

What is a breast self-exam?

A breast self-exam (BSE) is a way to check your own breasts for lumps and other changes. Regular BSEs can help you know how your breasts normally look and feel. Although most breast lumps or changes are not cancer, you should always have them checked by a caregiver.

Why should I do a BSE?

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. Even if you have mammograms, you may still want to do a BSE regularly. If you know how your breasts normally feel and look, it may help you know when to contact your caregiver. Mammograms can miss some cancers. You may find a lump during a BSE that did not show up on your mammogram. Men can also do BSEs on themselves to check for breast changes. It is possible for men to get breast cancer, too.

When should I do a BSE?

Mark your calendar to help you remember to do BSE on a regular schedule. One easy way to remember to do BSE is to do the exam on the same day of each month. If you have periods, you may want to do your BSE 1 week after your period ends. This is the time when your breasts may be the least swollen, lumpy, or tender. You can do regular BSEs even if you are breastfeeding or have breast implants.

How should I do a BSE?

Divide your BSE into 2 steps:

  • Look at your breasts in a mirror: Look at the size and shape of each breast and nipple. Check for swelling, lumps, dimpling (looks like orange peel), scaly skin, or other skin changes. Look for nipple changes, such as a nipple that is painful or beginning to pull inward. Gently squeeze both nipples and check to see if fluid (that is not breast milk) comes out of them. If you find any of these or other breast changes, contact your caregiver. Check your breasts while you sit or stand in the following three positions:
    • Hang your arms down at your sides.
    • Raise your hands and join them behind your head.
    • Put firm pressure with your hands on your hips. Bend slightly forward while you look at your breasts in the mirror.


  • Lie down and feel your breasts: When you lie down, your breast tissue spreads out evenly over your chest. This makes it easier for you to feel for lumps and anything that may not be normal for your breasts. Do a BSE on one breast at a time.
    • Place a small pillow or towel under your left shoulder: Put your left arm behind your head.
    • Use the 3 middle fingers of your right hand to do the BSE: Use your fingertip pads, on the top of your fingers. Your fingertip pad is the most sensitive part of your finger.
    • Use small circles to feel your breast tissue: Use your fingertip pads to make dime-sized, overlapping circles on your breast and armpits. Use light, medium, and firm pressure. First, press lightly. Second, press with medium pressure to feel a little deeper into the breast. Last, use firm pressure to feel deep within your breast.
    • Examine your entire breast area using up and down lines: Examine the breast area from above the breast to below the breast where you feel only ribs. Make small circles with your fingertips starting in the middle of your armpit. Make the circles going up and down the breast area in up and down lines. Continue making the up and down lines toward your breast and all the way across it. Examine the area from the armpit and all the way over to the middle of your chest (breastbone). Stop at the middle of your chest. This way you will not miss any breast tissue that could have lumps or other changes.
    • Move the pillow or towel to your right shoulder, and put your right arm behind your head: Use the 3 fingertip pads of your left hand, and repeat the above steps to do a BSE on your right breast.
    • Sit or stand up to examine your armpit areas again: Raise your arm up slightly, but not all the way above your head. The skin may tighten too much and be difficult to examine if you raise your arm too high. Feel for lumps or other changes in each armpit.

How do I know I am doing my BSE correctly?

During a visit, your caregiver can watch you do a BSE, and can tell you if you are doing your BSE correctly. If you do not know how, ask your caregiver to show you how to do a BSE.

What else can I do to check for breast problems or cancer?

Some experts suggest that women 40 years of age or older should have a mammogram every year. Other experts suggest that women between the ages of 50 and 74 years old should have a mammogram every 2 years. Talk to your caregiver about when you should have a mammogram.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You find any lumps or changes in your breasts.
  • You have breast pain or fluid coming from your nipples.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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