How to perform a breast self-examination

Older woman smiling on the beach and wearing pink as a symbol for breast cancer awareness month.
Woman wearing pink to celebrate breast cancer awareness month.

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med) — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in Canada and while it’s an opportunity to celebrate the amazing progress that has been made against breast cancer, we should also continue to prioritize research and raise awareness about a disease that has affected and continues to affect many women’s lives.

Thanks to early detection and improvements in treatment, breast cancer mortality rates have considerably decreased over the past few decades. But we can’t afford to be complacent. Recent medical studies show that 1 in 8 women in Canada are still expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. That could mean you – or someone you love.

While clinical breast screenings and mammograms are recommended by medical experts, and breast self-exams are never enough on their own, doctors still believe there is value in women becoming familiar with their own breasts, in order to understand what’s normal and promptly report any changes they may see or feel.

A thorough description of the five-step process and a video of a breast self-exam can be found here.

Using your hands and your eyes to examine your breasts may help you detect something before a doctor does. It’s still important to note that breast self-exams should never take the place of regular mammograms and clinical breast exams performed by a specialist.

Don’t panic at any physical changes you may see or feel

It’s perfectly normal that our breasts feel differently from month to month. Hormonal changes can alter the feel of our breast tissue and they can also make our breasts feel tender and sore to the touch. Women’s bodies can change considerably over the course of a lifetime, but none of those changes automatically signal a health problem.

Breast lumps can be caused by a number of causes –some of them completely benign and some of them easily treatable. There’s no need to worry if you detect something unusual. Breast lumps can be caused by a number of harmless reasons.

Breast cysts (round or oval structures filled with fluid) are very common and can also range in size. They also appear and disappear with your menstrual cycle. They’re more common in women in their 40s, and some women may develop more than one cyst. About a quarter of breast masses turn out to be harmless breast cysts, which don’t increase your risk of breast cancer.

Solid breast tumors called fibroadenomas are also quite common for many women and are also not cancer. Some lumps can also indicate a simple infection or a lipoma, which, again, are nothing serious to worry about.

When it’s possibly breast cancer

Of course, sometimes that lump you detect may indeed be cancer. A breast lump that’s painless, hard, unusual in shape may indicate something serious. Sometimes the skin over the lump changes and may look thick or flaky or dimpled. You may also notice swollen lymph nodes in your armpit or fluid leaking from your nipple.

This is when it’s most important not to forgo a clinical breast exam and it most definitely should never replace a mammogram –the best screening tool for any breast abnormalities.

Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you notice a lump or other breast change that is new, doesn’t seem to go away after your monthly period, or increases in size.

Your doctor will perform a clinical breast exam, assess the breast lump, check your health history, and will then –depending on your age– order the appropriate imaging tests, like an ultrasound, a mammogram, or perhaps an MRI or even a biopsy.

Monthly breast self-exams recommended

Healthcare professionals usually recommend people perform a breast self-exam monthly. Since breasts can feel tender and different during your period, it’s recommended that those who are still menstruating perform a breast self-exam after their period ends. If you’ve entered menopause, a good trick not to forget your breast self-exam is to start every month with one.

It’s important to repeat that breast self-exams can’t replace a clinical breast exam and annual mammograms. A clinical breast exam, as defined by the Canadian Cancer Society is a thorough examination of your breasts by a trained healthcare professional.

Most important, you should never neglect breast screenings because your medical team can help you detect cancer before any breast cancer symptoms even develop. The Canadian Cancer Society emphasizes that when breast cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are much better. Spread the word about Breast Cancer Awareness Month to keep your loved ones safe and healthy.

VM-Med’s private breast center and its specialized team offers specialized counselling and treatments, including breast imaging, breast biopsy, breast surgery, breast cancer staging, breast oncology, and breast cancer genetic testing. There are no questions or concerns that are off the table for your specialist.

Still have questions? Read more articles on breast cancer or book a consultation with our experts.