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Do-it-yourself cancer check

Breast self-exams are a great way to figure out your breasts’ terrain, learn what’s normal and what’s not and to detect changes early on. Some groups, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend doing self-exams monthly starting in your 20s, while others, such as the American Cancer Society, leave it up to each woman to decide if she wants to do them. Either way, it’s important to note that self-exams never replace regular mammograms or clinical exams done by your healthcare provider.

The best time to do an exam is a few days after your period ends, when your breasts aren’t tender or swollen.

What to look for

Looking at your breasts is a big part of self-exams. Changes that are cause for concern include:

  • dimpling, puckering or ridges of skin on the breast
  • nipples that are pushed inward
  • redness, warmth, swelling or pain
  • itchy sore or rash on the nipple
  • nipple discharge

To feel your breasts, lie flat on your back and use either gentle circle motions or up and down patterns, feeling your entire breast for lumps. Make sure to examine the underarm area, where there’s also breast tissue.

As you perform a breast exam, you want to feel for a hard lump or knot in or near the breast or in your underarm, but take note of any other change in how your breasts feel.

Most lumps aren’t cancer, but your provider is the only one who can tell for sure, so if you notice any changes, make sure to get them checked out right away.