Early detection and treatment can increase the chance of surviving breast cancer. Knowing how to detect changes in the breast and spot the symptoms can play an essential role in treating the condition.

Practicing monthly breast self-examination can help detect irregularities or changes that may indicate cancer. However, there are currently no standard guidelines on when or how to perform these self-exams.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not recommend regular clinical breast exams or breast self-exams as part of a routine breast cancer screening schedule.

This is due to the risk of receiving a false-positive result, which could lead to unnecessary treatment or anxiety. In addition, physical self-exams cannot detect every kind of breast cancer.

However, the ACS acknowledges that people should be familiar with how their breasts usually look and feel. One way of doing this is through regular self-exams. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls this breast self-awareness.

A person who is familiar with the features of their breasts has a better chance of spotting any changes that do occur, and this can increase the likelihood of early detection and effective treatment.

This article provides a step-by-step guide on how to perform a self-exam of the breasts.

Apart from a lump, what are some other early symptoms of breast cancer? Find out here.

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The National Breast Cancer Foundation suggests three steps for an effective breast self-exam:

  1. Do a visual exam, including looking in a mirror.
  2. Do a physical exam while standing up.
  3. Do a physical exam while lying down.

People should pay attention to:

  • the breasts
  • the underarm area
  • the wider chest area, as far as the collarbone, the chest bone, and the top of the abdomen

The following sections explain how to carry out the exam in more detail.

Visual exam

A person can do a visual exam in front of a mirror.

With the arms down, check for changes in:

  • shape or size
  • skin color and texture
  • nipple color, texture, and shape
  • vein patterns, especially an increase in the size or number of veins

Repeat these steps with the arms above the head and the body bending slightly forward.

Physical exam while standing up

People often do a standing exam in the shower because the skin is easier to examine when slippery.

Use the following steps to perform a standing check:

  1. With the pads of the three middle fingers, check all parts of each breast using circular motions.
  2. Move from the sides to the center, checking for lumps or knots.
  3. Repeat using light, medium, and firm pressure. With the fingers, perform circular movements, up-and-down movements, and “wedge” shaped movements from the outer breast to the nipple and back again.
  4. Repeat for the whole chest area on both sides.

Physical exam while lying down

A lying down exam allows the breast tissue to spread out evenly along the chest wall. In this position, a person can check the whole of both breasts and the wider chest area.

To check the breast while lying down, follow these steps:

  1. To check the right side, place a pillow under the right shoulder and raise the right arm above the head.
  2. Using the left hand, press on all areas of the breast and underarm.
  3. Repeat with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check with the fingers by performing the same movements as with the standing exam.
  4. Cover the area from under the arm to the chest bone, collarbone, and top of the abdomen.
  5. Squeeze the nipple and check for lumps and discharge.
  6. Repeat all of these steps for the left breast.

Some people with breast cancer experience no symptoms. In some cases, however, changes may start to occur from an early stage. People should speak with a doctor about their screening plan if they have any concerns.

It is also worth noting that not all breast lumps are breast cancer, and not every case of breast cancer involves a lump. For these reasons, people should attend regular screening as a doctor recommends.

What else can a breast lump indicate? Find out here.

Checking the breast

Breast changes that may indicate cancer include:

  • a lump or thickening in the breast tissue
  • an unexplained change in breast shape
  • changes in skin color
  • unusual breast shrinkage or swelling
  • dimpling or puckering of the skin, or enlarged pores
  • skin that has become irritated, scaly, or ridged
  • a thickening of the breast skin
  • pain or a burning sensation

Checking the nipples

Some changes to look for in the nipples and areolae include:

  • changes in skin color
  • warmth or swelling
  • the nipple turning inward
  • a scaly or ridged texture to the skin
  • discharge that could be clear, milky, or yellow or contain blood
  • tenderness or pain

Checking the lymph nodes

Breast cancer can cause changes in the lymph nodes in the early stages.

To check the lymph nodes, look for:

  • a lump, swelling, or thickening around the underarm
  • a lump or swelling in the collarbone area
  • a thickening of the skin in the armpit

Lymph node involvement can also result in a rash on the breast in people with inflammatory breast cancer.

A person should contact a doctor about these or any other unexplained changes, especially if they only seem to affect one breast.

Learn more about the early symptoms of breast cancer here.

Lymph nodes, breast cancer, and COVID-19 vaccines

It is worth noting that breast cancer is not the only reason for lymph node swelling under the arm. The lymph nodes play a role in the body’s immune response, and swelling can occur as they fight unwanted intruders, such as infections.

The lymph nodes under the arm can also swell in response to a vaccine, such as the COVID-19 vaccine. This could contribute to a false diagnosis of breast cancer. For this reason, experts suggest scheduling any routine mammograms at least 4–6 weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

However, if a person has concerns about possible symptoms of breast cancer, they should not hesitate to contact a doctor. They should also not delay having a COVID-19 vaccine. This is because if cancer is present, they may benefit from the extra protection a vaccine offers.

How might COVID-19 affect people with breast cancer? Find out here.

Although the ACS does not currently recommend regular breast self-exams as part of breast cancer screening, BreastCancer.org recommends checking the breasts once per month at the same time each month.

Before menopause, it is best to do the self-exam a few days after menstruation ends. At this time, the breasts are least likely to be swollen or sore.

After menopause, a person might decide to check, for example, on the first day of each month.

The normal texture and appearance of breasts can vary among individuals. Certain areas might feel sandy or grainy, and others might have small lumps. Not all breast lumps are cancerous.

Routine self-exams help people develop a sense of what is normal for them and make it easier to spot any changes that might occur.

The ACS no longer recommends breast self-exams or physical exams by a doctor as a diagnostic tool, as there is a risk of false positives. Many breast lumps are not cancerous, and finding them can lead to unnecessary anxiety.

However, if a person is familiar with how their breasts usually look and feel, they are more likely to be able to spot changes at an early stage. If cancer is present, an early diagnosis can mean that treatment is more effective.

A self-exam is not a diagnostic tool. People should follow a doctor’s advice on mammogram screening to ensure that they have the best chance of finding any changes as early as possible.