A Breast self-exam is a method by which a woman can examine her breasts to look for changes such as any lumps or thickenings, changes that may or may not signal breast cancer.
About 80% lumps are not cancerous, but it doesn't hurt to be careful.
According to the American Cancer Society, you should perform a breast self-exam once a month, three to five days after your menstrual period ends.
If you have stopped menstruating, say in pregnancy, you need to perform the exam on the same day of each month. You could mark the date on a calendar or as a reminder on your phone.
The examination will take several minutes to perform. The basic idea is for you to get familiar with the shape of your breasts and the way they feel to your touch regularly so that you will be more alert to any changes.
#1 Visual Inspection
The first thing is to look at your breasts in front of a large mirror in a well-lit room. Keep your arms relaxed by your sides. Don't be alarmed if your breasts do not look equal in size or shape. Most women's breasts are not.
Look for any changes in size, shape, texture, or skin. Look for any sores as well as any puckering, dimpling, or discoloration of the skin. Inspect your nipples and look for any sores, peeling, or change in the direction of the nipples.
Next, place your hands on your hips and press down firmly to tighten the chest muscles beneath your breasts. Turn from side to side so you can inspect the outer part of your breasts.
Make your breasts fall forward by bending forward toward the mirror. Look for any changes in the shape or contour of your breasts.
Now, clasp your hands behind your head and press your hands forward. Again, turn from side to side to inspect your breasts' outer portions. Remember to inspect the border underneath your breasts. You may need to lift your breasts with your hand to see this area.
#3 Feeling for changes
The next part of the Breast self-exam is palpation or feeling for changes. Using the finger pads of your three middle fingers on each hand feel for lumps. It is helpful to do this under the shower with your hands slippery with soap and water.
Check for any lumps or thickening in your underarm area. Feel your left armpit with your right hand and vice-versa. Check also for lumps or thickenings below both your collarbone.
With soapy hands, support the breast with one hand while using the other hand to feel the tissue. Use the flat part of your fingers to press gently into the breast. Follow an up-and-down pattern along the breast, moving from bra line to collarbone. Continue the pattern until you have covered the entire breast. Repeat on the other side.
You can also examine your breasts lying down. Lie on your side. Make small circular motions. Keep your fingers flat and in constant contact with your breast and continue with the circular motions till your entire breast has been palpated. Make sure to palpate the upper outer areas that extend into your armpit.
#4 Checking for discharge
Check for any fluid discharge from your nipples. Place your thumb and forefinger on the tissue surrounding the nipple, and pull outward. Look for any discharge. Repeat on your other breast.
If you discover any new breast changes, changes that persist after your menstrual cycle, or changes that concern you see your doctor. The changes that warrant attention are:
#5 Checking for Lumps
An area that is distinctly different from any other area on either breast, any change in size and shape, lump in the breast or underarm, hardening of the skin, an increase in the number of veins in one breast, changes or redness of skin, discharge from a nipple.
If you do discover something, say a lump, don't panic. More than 80% of lumps in the breast are of a benign nature.
The whole idea of doing this Breast self-exam every month is simply for you to get used to the look and feel of your normal breasts, to be "aware".
If the whole idea of checking yourself for cancer makes you nervous, anxious, irritable or depressed you can very well skip the routine and just do it once in a while just to make sure that "all is well".
When it comes to keeping abreast of your breasts, do whatever you feel most comfortable with—whether that means doing regular step-by-step self-exams or simply practising breast self-awareness. It's your choice.