Health Topics

Breast Self-Exams Aid in Breast Tissue Self-Awareness

Dr. Rebecca Stark shares how being proactive about breast health can help prevent cancer.

Be Proactive About Your Health

Women are notorious for putting everyone else’s healthcare needs ahead of their own. At Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Specialized Women’s Health, we encourage every woman to be proactive about her health.

Being proactive allows you to enjoy a longer, more active life — and more time with those you love.

Breast cancer is one of the diseases women should be most vigilant about:

  • It is the most common female cancer in the United States, affecting one in eight women during their lifetimes.
  • Breast cancer is more likely to respond to treatment when it is detected early.

Learn What ‘Normal’ is

The signs of breast cancer differ from woman to woman. Knowing how your breasts normally look and feel gives you a tremendous edge in detecting subtle changes.

If you notice any changes like these in either breast, call your doctor’s office promptly:

  • A lump, hardness or thickening
  • Any swelling, warmth, redness or change in color
  • A change in size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • An itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of the nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Bloody nipple discharge
  • New pain in one spot that won’t go away

How to Perform Breast Self-Exams

Exams should be done seven to 10 days after your period ends, starting at age 20. If you do not have periods, you can examine your breasts at any time, but make sure that it is the same time each month.

You can do your exam in the shower or bathtub, standing in front of a mirror, or lying on your back.

In the shower or tub

  1. With hands wet and soapy, place your left hand on your hip or raise your left arm, then feel your armpit for lumps. Feel above and below collarbone as well.
  2. With the flattened fingertips of your right hand, feel every part of your left breast for lumps or skin thickening.
  3. Repeat this process with your other breast.

In front of a mirror

  1. Raise your arms above your head.
  2. Tighten your chest muscles and look for lumps, dimples, sores, skin discoloration, or changes in nipple direction or appearance.
  3. Repeat the inspection with your arms at your side, your hands on your hips, and bending forward with hands on hips.

Lying down

  1. Place a pillow or towel beneath your left shoulder, and rest your left hand behind your head.
  2. Place the flattened fingers of your right hand on your left breast. Press firmly in small circles, starting at the outermost edge and moving in toward the nipple until you’ve examined your entire breast.
  3. Gently squeeze the nipple and observe for discharge.
  4. Repeat this process on the other breast.

A Word About Mammograms

Mammograms are an important tool for breast cancer diagnosis. They can detect microscopic changes that may not be picked up on breast self-exam. They can also over diagnose breast issues.

Women should start getting annual mammograms at age 45 and they should be personalized. Some women can wait until age 50 to begin screening mammograms and have them done every two years. High risk women need more intensive screening.

To help your doctor make the best screening recommendations, research your family tree or ask relatives if anyone in your family had breast cancer. Also tell your doctor if you are on long-term oral estrogen-progestin therapy.