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breast self-examination

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Breast self-exam

Alternative Names
BSE, breast self-exam

Many experts suggest that women should examine their breasts each month to look for changes and any signs of breast cancer. This is called a breast self-examination (BSE).

What is the information for this topic?
Breast cancer cannot yet be prevented. But doing breast self-examination (BSE) monthly may help a woman find suspicious changes that may be signs of cancer. Breast cancer is often treated successfully when found early.

BSE works best when paired with an annual or biannual clinical breast examination by a doctor. Depending on a woman's age, regular mammograms may be recommended, too.

According to the NSW Breast Cancer Institute, a woman should do BSE once a month, preferably just after a period. If you no longer have your period, choose a day that you will remember each month. The best time to do the examination is about a week after a woman's period starts. That is when her breasts are least likely to be lumpy and tender. Women who do not have periods should choose a day of the month that is easy to remember.

During a BSE, a woman should be checking for lumps and any changes in her breasts. Becoming familiar with how her breasts normally feel and look is an important part of this examination. This makes it easier to notice changes over time. A woman who feels unsure about how to do a BSE or what to look for should ask her doctor to do an examination with her.

There are three steps to a BSE. Doing the first step of a BSE in the shower helps because soapy or wet fingers slide across the skin.

1. While standing in the shower, a woman should raise her right arm overhead. The finger pads of three middle fingers on the left hand should be used to make tiny circles on the skin of the right breast. One way to cover the whole breast is to move in a spiral pattern from the outer edge of the breast to the nipple. Another way is to move straight across the breast from the top edge to the bottom. The skin under the arm and the skin between breast and armpit should be carefully checked, too. Most cancerous lumps are found in the quarter of the breast closest to the armpit. Next, the woman should switch arms to do the same examination the left breast.

2. After coming out of the shower, the woman should lie down on her back. She should put her right arm overhead and a pillow under that shoulder. The steps followed in the shower should be repeated on the right breast. She should then switch and do the same examination on the left breast.

3. Standing in front of a mirror, the woman should look for:
  • redness or scaly skin on the breast or nipples
  • changes in the nipple, such as fluid leaking from it or the nipple turning inward
  • dimpled, puckered, or swollen spots on the breast
She should then tuck her hands behind her head and check again for these signs. Next, she should put her hands on her hips and tip her elbows toward the mirror. Bending forward a bit, she should look for the same signs again. Last, she should squeeze the nipples on both breasts to see if any fluid leaks out. (If a woman is breastfeeding, it is normal to see drops of breast milk.)

A woman should report any lumps or changes in her breasts or any of the signs mentioned above to her doctor right away. While women fear finding a lump, most often this is not a sign of cancer. It may instead be a fluid-filled sac called a cyst or another benign clump of cells. However, it is very important to have any such problem checked by a doctor.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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