A breast self-exam is a kind of health check that people can do at home by themselves. It involves looking at and feeling the breasts or chest growths to see if there’s any changes or potential issues. Some people do them regularly, up to once a month. Anyone can do a breast self-exam, regardless of their gender!
What are the pros and cons of doing breast self-exams?
Through the 90s and early 2000s, doctors often recommended breast self-exams for cisgender women in Canada and the United states. But today, medical experts don’t all agree about recommending them. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing regular breast self-exams!
Some of the pros of doing breast self-exams include:
- They’re free and can be done at home on your own schedule.
- They can help detect breast cancer and other types of breast disease.
- They can be a way to learn about your body.
- Doing them can help some people feel more comfortable asking for medical care.
Some of the cons of doing breast self-exams include:
- They’re associated with an increase in unnecessary chest biopsies.
- Not every lump or change in someone’s chest is cancer or breast disease! If someone finds something during a self-exam, it can cause anxiety over something that might not be anything to worry about.
Who can do breast self-exams?
Anyone can do breast self-exams! While a lot of material on them is geared towards women, breast cancer and breast disease can affect people of all genders. It’s more common in people who have breast growth, like cis women, trans women who are on HRT, and some nonbinary people. It’s less common in cisgender men and in trans men or nonbinary people who have had top surgery. But that doesn’t mean that men can’t get breast cancer or benefit from self-exams! For more gender-inclusive resources on breast self-exams, you can check out CoppaFeel!
So should I do breast self-exams or not?
The short answer is it’s up to you!
It’s important to consider that while self-exams can help with catching breast cancer and disease, there’s no evidence that they improve medical outcomes. That means that people who get breast cancer are just as likely to recover if their cancer was found through a self-exam as they are if it was found with a medical test like a mammogram.
People who don’t have a family doctor or are too young for regular screening may benefit from doing breast self-exams. So can people who have family histories of breast cancer, or who have the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes. Those are genes associated with a high risk for breast cancer.
If you don’t have a family history or other risk factors for breast cancer, or if you have a family doctor and get regular physical exams, you probably don’t need to do breast self-exams. You still can if you want to, though!
How do I do a breast self-exam?
To do a breast self-exam:
- If you have breast or chest growth tenderness, try to find a time when they’re not too sore. Chest tenderness can increase or decrease with hormone levels, like during someone’s menstrual cycle.
- Stand in front of a large mirror with your arms at your sides. You should be able to see your whole chest in the mirror. Look for anything that seems new or different to you about your chest. You know your body best! Some things to look for include: puckering or dimpling in your skin, skin that’s red or scaly, and any changes in the size, shape, or symmetry of your chest. If you have nipples, check them for changes as well. You can repeat this inspection with your hands on your hips, or raised above your head like you’re diving into a pool.
- Look at and feel the underside of your breasts or chest growths. You’ll feel a firm ridge there. Check it for any asymmetry. You can use the tips of your fingers to check the texture of your skin for changes, too.
- Next, move on to the tactile part of the exam. You can do this lying down on your side with one arm extended underneath your head. You can also do it standing! Some people like to do this part in the shower. Using the pads of your three middle fingers, press in small circles as you check each breast or chest growth separately. Start from just below the collarbone and check the surface of each breast, including the nipples if you have them. Also check each armpit for enlarged lymph nodes.
When to see a doctor
You should see a doctor after a self-exam if you notice any of the following signs:
- A lump, especially one that’s large, firm, doesn’t move around easily, and wasn’t there during your last self-exam.
- Pain in one spot, especially if there’s also a lump there.
- Nipple discharge that contains blood.
- Inverted nipples that weren’t inverted during your last self-exam.
- Sore, red, scaly, or dimpled skin.
If you’re taking estrogen as part of HRT, you may feel a tender lump underneath each nipple. This is a “breast bud” and it’s a common stage in breast growth! This, along with changes to the size and shape of the areolas, usually isn’t anything to worry about, especially early in breast development.
It’s important to know that even if you do find a lump or other change, that doesn’t mean you have cancer. There are lots of things that can cause changes in someone’s breasts! Many of these things are benign and easy to treat. A doctor can talk to you about your concerns, and answer any questions you might have.
Doctors recommend breast cancer screening every two years for people who are over the age of 40 and have breast growth. If you have a family history of breast cancer, it helps to start screenings when you’re at least 10 years younger than the age your family member was when they got their diagnosis.