Here are some shocking statistics: About one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes. Just this year alone, 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed, and if you have a first-degree relative with breast cancer (like your mom or your sister), your chance of diagnosis doubles.
The numbers are scary, but as with any disease, detecting breast cancer early greatly increases your chance of survival, so proactivity is of utmost importance. You were probably taught at some point to feel around your breast for something that feels out of place, but as you age, your breasts undergo a lot of changes, so it's hard to decipher what exactly you should be looking for.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Elizabeth Comen, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as well as gynecologist and DeoDoc expert Gunvor Ekman-Ordeberg, MD, PhD, who shared everything you need to know about self-breast exams. Take a look at their answers below.
What should women look for when checking their breasts?
"Self breast exams help women get to know what their breasts feel like normally and recognize any changes," says Comen. "In general, women should look to see that there's no change in size, shape, or color of their breasts. When touching their breasts, women should feel for new lumps as well as skin or nipple changes." If you need further clarification, Comen says to look at online tutorials on brestcancer.org or practice with a practitioner.
Ekman-Ordeberg adds that you should also look for rashes or changes in the skin texture, swelling in the armpit or collarbone area, and nipple discharge that leaves the nipple without squeezing, and to also take note of pain in the breast or armpit that's present all or most of the time.
How often should women perform a self-check?
"While there are no exact guidelines for how often to perform a self-check, monthly is reasonable," advises Comen. "The best time to perform a self-check is mid-cycle, one week after a woman’s period, when breasts are less sore and swollen. Postmenopausal women can check their breasts monthly." Ekman-Ordeberg recommends making it a routine each month when you're in the bath or shower.
What age should women start checking their own breasts?
"Although breast cancer in a very young woman is highly unlikely, once a woman has developed breasts, she can learn how to do a self-breast exam," says Comen. "This helps a woman become comfortable examining her breasts, and recognizing any changes or lumps that may have developed over time."
Ekman-Ordeberg echoes these sentiments: "Since breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, it's important to get to know how your breasts look and feel early on. This will help you to easier find out unusual changes or if something feels different. I recommend my patients to start getting familiar and to check their breasts in their mid-20s."
What's something that's often overlooked during self-exams?
"For some women, the breast tissue can extend close to the armpit area," explains Comen. "It's important to also feel underneath the armpit for any new lumps as well. A woman should have a medical professional perform a breast exam at least once a year, and seek medical attention for any new changes or concerns." Ekman-Ordeberg says to also check your collarbone area for lumps or changes.
Next up, take a look at some common factors that can change your breast size.