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We’ve heard it many times – the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances are for successful treatment. While annual mammograms are vital to early detection of breast cancer, breast self-exams are also important, says Nancy Markus, MD, a breast surgeon at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.
“I believe clinical breast exams are the next best thing to a mammogram,” Markus adds. “Breast self-exams are also essential for finding those early breast cancers. In the past, women have been encouraged to do monthly self-exams.”
Guidelines have changed recently to place less emphasis on “monthly” – but Markus still encourages her patients to do it. “I think women checking themselves is still an important part of early detection,” she says.
Get to know your breast “landscape”
The goal for breast self-exams is to “become familiar with your breast anatomy,” says Avni Jain, MD, a family medicine physician with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group. “Know your own lumps and bumps. If you have a lump that’s been proven benign (not cancer), get a good sense of what that feels like.”
Some lumps and bumps can be normal and more pronounced during certain times of the month. Doing your self-exam on the same date every month will help you remember. Plan your schedule around your menstrual cycle, a week after your cycle ends is recommended, as hormonal changes can affect your breast tissue, she adds.
Shower is the best environment
Some women prefer to do their self-exam laying down, with a little lotion on their fingers, says Markus. Others prefer the shower, which really can be more effective, she adds. “When you use soap on your hands, you can really slide your fingers over the skin. Use three flat fingers, that way you can feel yourself going over a bump or not.”
Sliding your fingers is important, Markus adds. “If you’re just poking around, you’re not going to appreciate a subtle change in the landscape. But if your fingers are flat and sliding over the skin, you might feel something like changes in skin texture, or dimpling.
What you’re looking for in a self-exam
The signs of breast cancer can be very different for each woman, Markus explains. “Sometimes it’s a little bump, a little knot or marble or pea type of thing — firmer than surrounding tissue. Other women will notice a thickening, nothing so clearly defined. Just a section of skin that feels thicker, doesn’t feel right. Some cancers are a little more spread out. Those skin changes or thickening might be the only thing you notice.”
Your breast cancer checklist
Dr. Jain’s advice: “Anything new or different in your breasts is a sign you need to see your doctor. That is an indicator something is going on. It may not necessarily be cancer, but it needs clinical evaluation. That’s why you need to know your own breasts.”
She advises looking for these changes during your self-exam:
- Changes in skin – slight swelling, thickening, orange-peel texture
- Dimpling of breast tissue
- Breast feels a little heavier
- Inverted nipple
- Abnormal discharge
Pain is rarely a sign of breast cancer, unless the cancer is very advanced, Markus adds. “Breast pain is a really common complaint, but is rarely associated with breast cancer. It’s usually hormonally driven, related to the monthly period.”
Learn your risk for breast cancer by taking Adventist HealthCare’s free and fast online breast cancer risk assessment. Complete the risk assessment during October for a chance to win a free weekend getaway for two to the Hotel Hershey and Spa in Hershey, PA. Learn more at www.YourBreastHealth.com.