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Breast Exam

Do it the right way

Why is it important?

According to BreastCancer.org, few women really want to do a breast self-exam, or BSE, and for many the experience is frustrating — you may feel things but not know what they mean. However, the more you examine your breasts, the more you will learn about them and the easier it will become for you to tell if something unusual has occurred. Breastcancer.org believes that BSE is an essential part of taking care of yourself and lowering your risk of breast cancer.

If you’re 40 or older and have an average risk of breast cancer, yearly screening mammograms should be part of your healthcare routine. Breastcancer.org still believes that BSE is a useful and essential screening strategy, especially when used in combination with regular physical exams by a doctor and mammography. About 20% of the time, breast cancers are found by physical examination rather than by mammography. We recommend that all women routinely perform breast self-exams as part of their overall breast cancer screening strategy.

Tips for self-examinations:

Try to get in the habit of doing a breast self-examination once a month to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally look and feel. Examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day that’s easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.

Don’t panic if you think you feel a lump. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time. In the United States, only 20% of women who have a suspicious lump biopsied turn out to have breast cancer.

Breasts tend to have different “neighborhoods.” The upper, outer area — near your armpit — tends to have the most prominent lumps and bumps. The lower half of your breast can feel like a sandy or pebbly beach. The area under the nipple can feel like a collection of large grains. Another part might feel like a lumpy bowl of oatmeal. What’s important is that you get to know the look and feel of YOUR breasts’ various neighborhoods. Does something stand out as different from the rest (like a rock on a sandy beach)? Has anything changed? Bring to the attention of your doctor any changes in your breasts that last over a full month’s cycle OR seem to get worse or more obvious over time.

You may want to start a journal where you record the findings of your breast self-exams. This can be like a small map of your breasts, with notes about where you feel lumps or irregularities. Especially in the beginning, this may help you remember, from month to month, what is “normal” for your breasts. It is not unusual for lumps to appear at certain times of the month, but then disappear, as your body changes with your menstrual cycle (if you are still menstruating). Only changes that last beyond one full cycle, or seem to get bigger or more prominent in some way, need your doctor’s attention.

If you’re worried about cost, talk to your doctor, a local hospital social worker, or staff members at a mammogram center. Ask about free programs in your area. You can also call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-422-6237 to be directed to lower-cost mammogram centers in your area. If you’re having difficulty scheduling a mammogram at the center where you live, call the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, or visit the American College of Radiology website’s Accredited Facility Search to find additional certified mammogram providers near you.

If you find mammograms painful, ask the mammography center staff members how the experience can be as easy and as comfortable as possible for you. Many states require that private insurance companies, Medicaid, and public employee health plans offer coverage for specific health services, including mammograms. The only state without a law ensuring that private health plans cover screening mammograms is Utah. To see specific state mammography screening coverage laws, visit the Paying for Breast Cancer Screening page on the American Cancer Society’s website.

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