You already know that maintaing a healthy weight and lifestyle, eating right, and abstaining from smoking and drinking too much can help to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. What about self-checks? How should they fit into your lifestyle to prevent breast cancer? We wanted to know, so we talked to Dr. Debbie Saslow, phD and Director of Breast and Gynecologic Cancer at the American Cancer Society (ACS), to get her take on who should be performing breast self-exams, when and how. Here's what she had to say:
"There's nothing that says there's a perfect way to do this or that this will save your life," Dr. Saslow says. She's right. Unfortunately, self-checks have been found to account for only a small number of early detections. Even so, Dr. Saslow says, it's important for women to familiarize themselves with their breasts.
"What self-checks do is allow women to understand what's normal for them," Dr. Saslow says. And while performing a self-check might not lead to early breast cancer detection, understanding what looks and feels normal to you will tip you off to when something doesn't look normal. This way, rather than randomly performing checks and not knowing when you should head to the doctor's office, you'll be able to have more of an idea of what's right for you.
How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam
Step 1: Lay down. "We used to recommend doing this in the shower," Dr. Saslow says. "We don't anymore, because with the soap and the running water, it turns out that's not an effective way to really feel what could be under the skin."
It's also important to perform the exam while lying down, instead of standing up. That ensures the skin spreads evenly over the chest, which makes it easier to feel all of the breast tissue.
Step 2: Place one arm up over your head. If you're uncomfortable, Dr. Saslow suggests placing a pillow or towel under your shoulder for support. Start with one side of your body. If you start on the right side, stretch your right arm above your head and use your left hand to support your right breast. Using the pads of your fingers on your left hand, move your breast up and down in a vertical pattern. This, too, is something that's changed in recent years, according to Dr. Saslow.
"We used to tell people to move in circles, but again, it was discovered that it wasn't a very effective way to determine if there were any lumps below your skin's surface," she says.
Step 3: Use varying amounts of pressure to check for anything suspicious. Check your entire breast area, including your rib cage and near your armpits for anything that doesn't look or feel normal. This could include lumps, bumps, dimpling of the skin, redness, scaliness or spontaneous fluid leakage from your breasts.
While it doesn't matter when you perform a self-check, Dr. Saslow recommends picking a day each month (say, one day during the week after your period) and sticking to it. Maintaining consistency will help to ensure you have the most accurate results.
Ultimately, you don't need to perform a self-check more than once a month. Doing so more than once a month hasn't been proven to add any benefit, except anxiety, and really, who needs more of that? The ACS recommends that women in their 20s and 30s get clinical breast exams at their doctor's visits least once every two or three years until they turn 40. After that, the general consensus is that women between the ages of 40 and 50 should receive mammograms every one to two years, and women over 60 should be receive one yearly.
Regardless of what age you are, if you see anything suspicious, see your doctor. It might not be anything—but it might also be something, even if it's not breast cancer.