Performing a Breast Self-Exam

Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel. Doing regular breast self-exams is the best way to know this. They also help you to notice any changes in your breasts. A change can be a sign of a problem. If you find a change, see your doctors right away.

Smiling woman

Most breast changes or lumps are not cancer, but only a doctor can tell for sure. When breast cancer is found early, you have more treatment choices and a better chance of recovery, so it is best to find breast cancer as early as possible.

Breast self-exams should not take the place of regular screening mammograms or clinical breast exams, which are done by a doctor. By doing routine breast self exams and having routine mammograms and checkups, you can help detect breast problems early.

Who Should Do a Breast Self-Exam?

ALL women should do the BSE once a month. This also includes women who:

  • Have gone through menopause
  • Are pregnant
  • Are breastfeeding
  • Have breast implants

When to Do a Breast Self-Exam?

Women should begin practicing breast self-exam by age 20, and continue the practice throughout their lives, even during pregnancy and after menopause.

A breast self exam (BSE) should be performed every month.

  • If you still menstruate, the best time to do a BSE is a few days after your period ends, when your breasts are not tender or swollen.
  • If you have gone through menopause, try to do the exam on the same day each month. Some women choose the first day of each month to help them remember.
  • If you are taking hormones, talk to your doctors about when you should perform the BSE.

How to Do a Breast Self-Exam

3 Patterns

  • Circle
    • Begin at the top of your breast and move your fingers slowly around the outside in a large circle.
    • When you return to the top, move your hand a little closer to the nipple and make a smaller circle
    • Do this in smaller and smaller circles until you have examined all the breast tissue.
  • Lines
    • Begin in the underarm area. Slowly move your fingers down until they are below your breast.
    • Move your fingers closer toward your nipple and go slowly back up, use the same motion.
    • Use this up-and-down pattern all the way across your breast
  • Wedge
    • Begin at the outside edge of your breast
    • Slowly work your way in toward the nipple. Doing one wedge-shaped section at a time.
    • Do this until the entire breast area has been examined.

In the Shower

  • Put one hand behind your head
  • With finger pads of the three middle fingers move your hand over the entire breast area.
  • Use right hand for left breast, left hand for right.
  • Use one of the three patterns above to examine your breasts. Choose the pattern and technique your health care professional recommends at your clinical breast exam. Do it the same way each time
  • Check for lumps, knots or thickenings.

Lying Down

  • Place a pillow or a towel under your right shoulder and your right hand behind your head
  • Using your left hand, follow the same patterns above to perform the BSE
  • Lower your right arm slightly and with your left hand, check your right underarm.
  • Check for lumps, knots, or thickenings.
  • Repeat on the other side, using your right hand to check left breast and underarm.

Before a Mirror

  • With your hands firmly pressing down on hips, check for changes in the shape, size or skin texture of your breasts.
  • Then raise your arms overhead and check again.
  • Note any skin dimpling, swelling or redness.
  • Check for changes in nipples and unusual discharge.

What Are You Looking For?

You should report to your health care professional immediately if you find the following changes in your breast(s):

  • A lump
  • Skin irritation
  • Dimpling, puckering, bulging, or ridges of the skin on the breast
  • Nipple retraction (nipple turns in)
  • Redness, warmth, swelling, or pain
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk
  • Change in color, shape, size or texture of a breast

This BSE information is not intended as a replacement for medical care. Report any changes or irregularities to your health care professional immediately.

Additional Information

ACS BSE Information

ACS Cancer Early Detection Guideline BSE Information

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