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Self exams are important, too

Self exams are important, too

by Health & Wellness Team - October 23, 2013

Every October, we remind women of the importance of receiving and scheduling a mammogram. We talk so much about the screenings, because they are extremely important in the detection and prevention of breast cancer.

As wonderful of a tool as they are, mammograms are only recommended for women age 40 and over, unless family history of breast cancer is a factor. But, we know that breast cancer doesn’t just happen to women over the age of 40. So how can younger women help protect themselves from this fatal disease?

The answer is a breast self exam. Performing a self exam each month is a great habit for women to form, beginning in their 20s. Self exams allow you to become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel, making it easier to recognize any changes. And, the best part of self exams is they can be performed in the comfort of your own home.

In September, the American Cancer Society updated their guidelines for breast self exams based on research and input from an expert group. They suggest the best way to cover all of the necessary tissue is by lying down. First, you should make sure your breasts are not tender or swollen before you begin your self exam. Lie down in a comfortable position and place your right arm behind your head. Use the finger pads, or softest part, of the three middle fingers of your left hand to make a small, overlapping circular motion, feeling for lumps or changes in your right breast.

The new recommendations suggest moving around the breast in an up-and-down pattern. Start closest to your underarm and move across the breast to your sternum, or chest bone. Go as far up as your clavicle, or collarbone, and down until you feel your ribs. For most women, it is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast. After you have covered the entire area, place your left arm behind your head and use the same method with your right finger pads for your left breast.

Another part of the self exam requires you to stand in front of the mirror, hands firmly pressed on your hips. The pressure on your hips contracts the chest wall muscles and helps to enhance any changes in your breasts. During this visual exam, you want to look at your breasts for any changes in size, shape, dimpling or skin texture. Also check your nipples for changes including redness, scaliness or any unusual discharge.

Next, examine each of your underarms for lumps, knots or thickenings while sitting or standing. Raise your arm slightly, not all the way, so it is easy to feel in the area. By raising your arm slightly, the tissue stays relaxed instead of tightening. All of these steps should be performed monthly.

If you are unsure if you are performing the self exam properly, ask your healthcare provider for help or instructions. They will make sure you are using the proper techniques. There are also resources available at the Cancer Empowerment & Resource Center at Shannon located on the first floor of the Shannon Medical Plaza at 102 N. Magdalen. The breast cancer awareness organization, Bright Pink, has a text messaging service called “Underwire Alerts” that will remind you to do your self exam each month.

Most importantly, finding a change in your breast does not necessarily mean there is a cancer, but the change should be reported to your healthcare provider who can follow up with a more thorough examination. The best protection is early detection and knowing your body always helps.

For more information about breast cancer and breast health, visit

By: Michelle Snuggs, M.D., Chief Radiologist Shannon Women’s Imaging & MRI Center


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