We all want to know the right steps for detecting early symptoms of breast cancer. For decades, women were encouraged to do monthly self-breast exams. However, healthcare facilities and organizations no longer teach self breast-exams. Instead, women are encouraged to practice breast self-awareness in the hopes of finding and stopping breast cancer in its tracks. Dr. Ashley Peters. DO, UnityPoint Health, explains the differences.
Breast Self-Exam vs Breast Self-Aware
In 2009, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) aligned with new guidelines to shift away from recommending routine or monthly breast self-exams for women at average-risk of breast cancer. Studies identified the breast self-exam caused unnecessary imaging tests, more breast biopsies with false positives and increased anxiety for women. The studies also identified self breast-exams didn’t increase breast cancer survival rates.
According to the ACOG, the breast self-exam is a step-by-step inspection of a woman's breasts on a regular, repetitive basis for the purpose of detecting breast cancer.
For years, recommendations encouraged women to perform breast checks once a month. While the breast self-exam can be a tool for developing breast self-awareness, the self breast-exam is no longer taught or pushed on a monthly basis. Instead, Dr. Peters says you should be aware of how your breast tissue normally feels, so you can take action if you notice something concerning.
“Being breast self-aware means knowing how your breasts normally look and feel. It’s like having a mental map of your tissue and being able to spot anything that doesn't quite belong - like new lumps or bumps," she says.
What Does Breast Cancer Look Like?
If you’re wondering how to check yourself for breast cancer, Dr. Peters says to keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms.
Puckering or dimpling of the skin
Nipple retraction (pulling in of the nipple)
Spontaneous nipple discharge
Redness or darkening of the skin
Skin lesions that don’t heal
Change in size or shape of the breast
Pain in one part of the breast that doesn’t go away
Lumps (tender or non-tender)
What Does a Breast Lump Feel Like?
While doing a breast check, lumps can be particularly confusing. Dr. Peters says breast tissue is naturally a little bumpy. If the consistency and texture of the breast are the same throughout, it’s likely nothing to worry about. However, lumps that feel hard, different than the rest of the breast or are newly identified should be evaluated by your doctor.
“Lumps can vary in size, and they can be movable or fixed. They can be painful or non-painful to the touch,” Dr. Peters says.
There are several non-cancerous lumps that also happen in many women at some point in their lives. The lumps are caused by fibrosis and/or cysts. According to the American Cancer Society, fibrosis refers to a large amount of fibrous tissue, which may feel rubbery, firm or hard to the touch. Cysts are usually movable lumps that are fluid-filled. Many times, cysts increase in size right before a woman’s menstrual period.
Can Men Get Breast Cancer?
Men can experience lumps, too. Dr. Peters says the side effects of some medications or hormone changes in men can lead to a non-cancerous condition known as gynecomastia. It’s when the male breast develops a mass that's palpable and may or may not be painful. While this condition isn’t often associated with cancer, Dr. Peters says men, too, can be diagnosed with breast cancer and need to report any changes to their provider.
When to Get a Mammogram
With differing guidelines from women's health and cancer prevention organizations, you may be wondering what age you're supposed to start receiving routine breast cancer screenings. At UnityPoint Health, Dr. Peters says the recommendations from the ACOG are followed, which means yearly screenings starting at 40.
Know Your Risk
For people without a family history of breast cancer, it’s recommended to have a clinical breast exam every three years starting at 20. Then, be sure you know your family's health history when talking with your doctor about which screenings are right for you and when to start them based on your cancer risk.
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