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All adults can benefit from breast self-exams. Here’s one way to do yours.

| Healthy You | Women’s Health | Wellness

Illustration of a person's chest, arms and torso with the title "how to do a breast self-exam"

If you notice any lumps or changes during a self-exam, your provider can recommend next steps.

We all have breast tissue*, regardless of our gender assigned at birth. But some people are at higher risk for breast cancer because of family history, surgeries, use of hormone therapy or other reasons.

The good news is that the 5-year survival rate is 99% for people whose breast cancer is caught early, before it can spread.

That’s where self-exams come in. Understanding what’s “normal” for your breast tissue can help you track changes over time and catch early signs of cancer. And it’s simpler than you may think.

"There is no ‘one way’ to do a good breast examination,” says Sandra Smith, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at PeaceHealth in Vancouver, Washington.

Dr. Smith often hears from patients who say they don’t do self-exams because they don't know what they’re feeling.  Or they think their breast tissue is too lumpy. Or they’re afraid of “doing it wrong.”

“The key is doing an examination regularly, on a monthly basis,” she says. “If you visually inspect the breasts and intentionally pay more attention when you wash the chest and armpit areas in the shower once a month, you will pick up anything that is ‘new’ or ‘different’ very reliably.”

If you notice something that looks or feels new to you, and it lasts for the next one or two months, Dr. Smith recommends scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider.

If what you noticed one month doesn’t last to the next, she says you don’t need to make a special appointment. But you should aim to keep up with regular breast cancer screenings based on the American Cancer Society’s guidelines. If you’re at average risk, that means you’re likely to start getting regular mammograms in your 40s.

Home exam how-to

While Dr. Smith says there’s no single way to do an effective self-exam, it can help to know the basic steps and signs to watch for.

Here’s a simple, step-by-step guide you can use to make breast health one of your regular self-care habits.

Step 1: Get ready.

Find a private space with a mirror where you feel comfortable doing the exam. Disrobe from the waist up.

Step 2: Look for changes.

With your arms relaxed at your side, look in the mirror. Take note of your chest’s overall appearance, including your breasts’ size and shape.

Watch for:

  • Changes in your skin’s texture or color.
  • Swelling, redness, dimpling, rash or anything else unusual.
  • Changes in the position, size or shape of your nipples and areolas.

Then repeat the process with your arms lifted overhead.

Step 3: Feel for changes.

Find a comfortable place to lie on your back. Keeping your fingers flat and together, gently press your chest tissue with the pads of your fingers. If you need to, you can put a pillow under one shoulder to make it easier to reach your breast.

Start near your armpit, at the outermost edge of your breast. Move your fingers in small circles, going gradually inward toward your nipple. Cover the full area of your breast, including the nipple and areola.

As with the visual check, take note of any changes. This could include lumps, thickening or changes in texture.

Step 4: Check your nipple.

Hold your nipple between your thumb and forefinger. Gently squeeze it, then look for any fluid discharge. It could be clear, milky, yellow or red.

Notice if you see any changes in your nipple’s shape, color or inversion (when it turns inward).

Step 5: Check your armpit.

Stand up and put your hand on your hip. Bring the fingers of your opposite hand to your armpit.

Gently press and move your fingers in a circle. Take note of any lumps or swelling.

Step 6: Repeat.

Follow Steps 2-5 on the other side of your body. Note the results.

Step 7: Notice any changes? Talk to your provider.

If you observe any lumps or changes during your self-exam, or if you have questions, reach out to your healthcare provider. They can give you more information, do an exam and recommend any other tests or next steps.

Plan for monthly self-checks

You can do a self-exam once a month. To help you remember, choose a consistent date. If you have periods, you can do it a few days after your cycle ends. If you don’t, set a time that makes sense for you.

“For people who have regular menstrual cycles, I tell them that the best time to do their self-examination is between days 5 and 10 of their menstrual cycle, after their bleeding has stopped.,” Dr. Smith says. “During this time period, the hormone influence on breast tissue is less apparent, the breasts are softer and are easier to examine reliably.”

Keeping a record of your self-exams can help you track changes over time. And you can share the results with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.

*Usage note: The word “breast” is used here in its medical sense to mean the front of the chest, including the glands and tissue that are at risk for breast cancer. We recognize, however, that you may wish to use other words to describe your chest.

portrait of Sandra L. Smith MD

Sandra L. Smith MD

General Surgery
Dr. Sandra Smith provides surgical treatment for benign and malignant breast diseases. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Michigan University with double majors in Chemistry and English. She earned her medical degree from the University of Missouri - Columbia. Dr. Smith is Board Certified by the American Board of Surgery and is a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Smith was inspired at an early age to pursue a career in medicine. "When I was 12 years old, I read a story about Albert Schweitzer and his work in Africa. It was inspiring and I decided that I wanted to be a doctor. I chose General Surgery and Breast Surgery because I loved being able to make a diagnosis and then intervene in a way that helps people return to good health.” "Ethical conduct, integrity, and compassion are my guiding principles. I strive to provide service excellence and see each patient as an individual and as a whole person. I work at understanding each person’s particular circumstance, then diligently pursue a complete understanding of their health concerns to provide best-practice guidance to medical decision-making and surgical care. A good provider-patient relationship is necessary to achieving good health care outcomes and requires honest communication and active listening." Her desire to help others has taken Dr. Smith on surgical mission trips to Migori, Kenya, and to Puerto Penasco, Mexico. Away from work Dr. Smith enjoys hiking, biking, camping, motorcycling, kayaking, swimming, music, theater and reading, and writes poetry, essays, memoir, and short fiction as time allows.