According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early and is in the localized stage, the five-year relative survival rate is 99 percent. And early detection means not only regular visits with a healthcare provider and mammograms, but also monthly breast self-exams.
A lot has changed during the pandemic. Many people decided to put off healthcare and delay some routine preventive visits. People also noticed their bodies changing, in all sorts of ways, because of stress (as well as other factors). Doing a monthly breast self-exam isn't just about looking for cancer. It’s part of staying acquainted with your body, checking in with it, and seeing what’s up. It’s a time to slow down and clue in. Is that a new freckle? Is there weight gain or loss? Muscle gain or loss? Our bodies have so much to tell us if we take the time to listen.
Unless they have certain risk factors such as a family history of breast cancer, most people don’t start getting regular mammograms until they are 40 years old. This contributes to a misconception that breast health is not a concern until then. However, once you’ve passed puberty, monthly self-exams are a good idea. If you’ve never done a breast self-exam, you may be wondering where to begin. Here are few easy steps to get you started:
• Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror. Be sure you are standing on flat feet or sitting with as straight a back as you are able (no intentional slouching or leaning).
• Check for usual size, shape, and color. Also check for visible distortion or swelling.
• Raise your arms and continue to evaluate shape, size, and color.
• While you are looking in the mirror, look for signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (it could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
• If you have any redness, soreness, rash, dimpling, or bulging, or a nipple that has changed shape or has unusual discharge, contact your healthcare provider immediately.
• With one arm raised, begin to move your fingertips in small circles (about the diameter of a quarter is a good size), moving from the nipple outward toward the armpit, covering the area of the breast. Use firm pressure to feel through any dense tissue. Repeat on the other side. (Many people find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower.)
• Perform another self-exam with arms down. Use the same technique, massaging in small circles with your fingertips. Work from your collarbone down to your armpit and then to the top of your abdomen, while also covering the area of the breast. Feel for any changes — lumps, bumps, sore spots, and anything different from your last check.
• Also perform a check while you are lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm touch and cover the entire breast. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: use light pressure for the skin and the tissue just beneath it, use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts, and use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.
For more on breast self-exam techniques, visit BreastCancer.org.
Sometimes, you may find a lump, bump, or irregularity during a self-exam. If you notice one of these changes, have discharge from the nipple, or find something else unusual for your body, contact your healthcare provider and have them take a look. There are many benign (non-cancerous) breast conditions. Menstrual cycles, certain medications, stress, and illness can all lead to changes in glands around the breast area or in breast tissue, but it’s a good idea to have any changes in your breasts checked out.
One of the best things you can do for your health is get to know yourself. Knowing how your body usually changes when you are menstruating, during times of stress, or in other situations can help you talk with your doctor.
Looking to establish care with a new primary care provider? Carbon Health’s compassionate, judgment-free providers are here to help you stay healthy and reach your health goals. Book a virtual or in-person appointment today.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.