Breast Self-Exams in 3 Easy Steps

Monthly self-exams are a simple way to help you detect breast cancer early

Monthly self-exams are a simple way to help you detect breast cancer early

Breast cancer affects roughly one in eight women in the US at some point in their lives. It’s the second most prevalent cancer in American women, after skin cancer. Fortunately, it’s also one of the most treatable. Regular breast self-exams can help health care professionals catch cancer early, and earlier detection often increases the likelihood of successful treatment.


It’s recommended that women 20 and over conduct a breast self-exam monthly, in addition to an annual clinical exam. Note changes in size, shape or color, and check for lumps, changes in the feel of the skin on the breast or nipple, and nipple discharge. 


Cheryl Olson, MD, a breast surgeon at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center, recommends women map out their breasts, so they have something to reference month to month.


“The main thing is to be consistent and find a routine that allows you to touch every part of the breast, so you don’t miss something,” she says.

How to do a self breast exam

If you’re unsure how to perform a breast cancer self-exam, rest assured it’s simple. Below are three ways to become familiar with the look and feel of your breasts, so you can quickly identify unusual changes:


Take a shower

Many women find that water makes their skin easier to inspect. Using the pads of your fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area. Note any lumps, thickening or hard-feeling knots.


Look in the mirror

Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides, then repeat with arms overhead. Look for changes in the contour, changes in the nipples and any swelling or dimpling of the skin. Flex your chest and look again for dimpling, puckering or changes, particularly on one side.


Lie down

Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast and armpit. Use light, medium and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple, checking for discharge and lumps. Repeat on your left side.

What to do if you find a lump in your breast

Even though most women under 40 don’t need annual mammograms or supplemental imaging, problems within the breast can still develop, though less often. 


“Women who are not old enough to get a mammogram but feel a lump because they did a self-exam, can come in,” Dr. Olson says. “We’ll get the appropriate imaging and either move them on to a biopsy or reassure them.”


At its three breast care centers and radiology locations throughout the health care system, Scripps provides state-of-the-art equipment, including 3D tomosynthesis and 2D digital mammography, breast MRI, breast ultrasound and breast specific gamma imaging (BSGI), along with dedicated and specialized radiologists and technicians, and multidisciplinary teams that provide personalized care. 


“I believe in self-exams; I believe in the imaging and mammogram process,” says Dr. Olson. “It helps us find cancers earlier, and hopefully make a difference, in terms of our treatment options for patients and their hope for survival.”

The cover of the September 2019 issue of San Diego Health Magazine.

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.