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Check Yourself for Breast Cancer

It is that time of year! While breast cancer affects almost 300,000 men and women each year, October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month shine a spotlight on this harrowing disease—including its risks and prevention.

While your doctor appointments can help you catch breast cancer early, performing monthly self-examinations of your breasts can ensure that you catch the signs as quickly as possible.

Johns Hopkins Medical Center states, “Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.” Self-examinations can also get you familiar with the look and feel of your breasts so you can alert your doctor if anything changes or feels unusual.

If you are a woman, your gynecologist should be examining your breasts at each check-up appointment. If you are a woman over 50 or with a heightened chance of breast cancer, your yearly mammogram is also a great way to catch cancer in its early stages.

Additionally, almost 4,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. This is why it is extremely important for both men and women to perform regular self-examinations.

How to Examine Yourself

The National Breast Cancer foundation suggests performing self-exams once a month. You can perform a self-exam in front of a mirror while lying down or in the shower.

In Front of a Mirror
With your arms resting at your sides, visually examine your breasts. Next, raise your arms above your head. Look for any changes in the contour of your breast shape, any swelling or dimpling of the skin, or a change in color of the nipples.

Then, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex the muscles in your chest. It’s unlikely that both breasts will match exactly (very few women have breasts that do) but look for any puckering, dimpling or changes—especially if it is only on one side.

Lying Down
While you’re lying down, your breast tissue spreads evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow behind your head, and under your right shoulder and arm. Using your left hand, gently move the pads of your fingers around your right breast in small circular motions. Be sure to cover the entire breast and armpit.

Use light, medium and firm pressure to access the layers of your tissue. Squeeze your nipples and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.

In the Shower
Using the pads of your fingers, examine your entire breast and armpit with a circular pattern, moving from the outside to the center. Check both of your breasts for any lumps, thickening, or a hardened knot. If you notice any changes, alert your healthcare provider right away.

Can You Rely on Self-Exams Alone?

Self-exams can be useful in detecting cancer. However, you should not rely on your self-exams alone. Mammograms can actually detect cancer before a tumor can be felt. This is why it is important to get yearly tests and check-ups. Self-exams combined with regular medical care and testing can help women know what is normal, so they can report any irregularities to their doctor.

If you find a lump during a self-exam, schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. However, do not panic, as 80% of lumps are non-cancerous. Your doctor will perform tests and an in-office exam to determine the best course of treatment.