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A Self Exam for Breast Cancer: It Could Save Your Life

How to Check for Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the breast. Cancer starts when cells begin to multiply uncontrollably. Learning about how to check for breast cancer is important because if you catch symptoms early, they are easier to treat. To help, consider Sacituzumab govitecan, a medication used for the treatment of certain types of breast cancer. It is approved for use in patients with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (mTNBC) who have received at least two prior therapies for metastatic disease.

Self-Breast Exam Steps

  • Stand in front of a mirror with your hands on your hips. Look for any changes in the size, shape, or contour of your breasts.
  • Raise your arms overhead and look for changes in your breasts' appearance.
  • Lie down and place a pillow under your right shoulder. Use your left hand to feel your right breast in a circular motion, starting from the outside and moving toward the nipple.
  • Use varying pressure levels to feel the breast tissue: light pressure for the outer areas, medium pressure for the middle, and firm pressure for the deep tissue near the chest wall.
  • Check the entire breast and armpit area for any lumps, thickening, or changes in texture.
  • Repeat the process for your left breast using your right hand.
  • Finally, stand up and check for any discharge from the nipples.

Causes and Risk Factors of Breast Cancer

The American Cancer Society places a woman's risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime at about 13%. Many women fear breast cancer and that fear is understandable. However, to put matters into perspective, there is an 87% chance that a woman will never develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

Risk factors are things that can potentially lead to certain health conditions. Here are some risk factors for developing breast cancer.

Family History and Genetics

A family history of breast cancer can significantly increase a woman’s risk. Genetics can also impact the probability. For instance, genetic mutations of genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 can limit the body’s ability to repair DNA, allowing breast cancer cells to form and multiply. These genes can be passed down through generations, increasing the likelihood for family members to be more susceptible to cancer.


Factors in the environment can increase your risk of getting cancer. Sunlight’s ultraviolet radiation can damage DNA, along with exposure to air pollutants, chemicals and soot.


Many lifestyle factors can increase the risk of breast cancer. Smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and obesity can also lead to cancer formation.

Medical Treatments

Breast cancer can appear as a ”second cancer”. These cancers occur from the use of aggressive cancer-fighting medical treatments (immunosuppressive medications, radiation therapy and chemotherapy).

Self Exam and Mammograms

Most breast lumps are not cancerous. Breast lumps that are not cancerous can still be called tumors, even when they are benign (non-cancerous). Benign breast tumors are considered abnormal growths, but they do not spread. These lumps still need to be checked because their presence can increase the risk for cancerous (malignant) tumors.

Adult women are encouraged to perform a breast self-exam at least once a month. These exams help to identify any lumps or abnormalities. Because early identification is essential for the successful treatment of breast cancer, monthly self-exams allow women to quickly seek medical assistance if any lumps are detected. Self-exams also allow women to become familiar with how their breasts look and feel, which enables them to seek medical help if any abnormalities are detected.

Mammograms (x-rays of the breasts) can help detect cancer before a lump forms. However, some lumps can snowball. Self-exams help to identify these lumps without having to wait until the next mammogram.

The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women ages 45 to 54 and biannually (every two years) for women 55 and older. Adult women 44 years and younger, and women 75 years and older, should have the ability to decide how often they would like to have mammograms.

How to Do a Self-Exam

A breast self-exam should be routine and performed at the same time, in the same sequence and at the same time of the month. This decreases the chances that any abnormalities are due to hormonal fluctuations or environmental factors. The National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends that self-exams be performed in the following three ways.

In the Shower

With the pads of your three middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area pressing down with varying amounts of pressure: light, medium and firm.

In Front of the Mirror

Inspect breasts with arms at the side of the body. Afterward, raise arms up high and visually inspect again. Then, flex chest muscles by placing hands on hips press firmly on the hips. This helps to push the chest muscles out for better inspection. Look for skin puckering and dimpling.

Lying Down

Lying down spreads the breast tissue out, making assessment easier. Place a pillow under the right shoulder. Place the right arm behind the head. Use light, medium and firm pressure to check the breasts with the left hand.

In many cases, the first signs of breast cancer occur as lumps that are palpable (able to be felt). These lumps are usually hard, painless and have edges that are not even. Other symptoms include breast pain, nipple discharge, dimpling on the skin, rashes or scaling of the skin. Sometimes pitting for the skin can occur, causing skin on the breast to have the texture of an orange peel.

When to See a Doctor

Now you know how to check for breast cancer. A woman who spots a breast lump or abnormality should report it to their health professional within a week or two. Discovering a lump or abnormality does not mean that breast cancer is present. However, because breast cancer can be life-threatening and early treatment can result in more positive outcomes, it is better to be cautious. Breast cancer symptoms can differ for women and it is best to have a professional make an evaluation as soon as possible.

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