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How to Detect Breast Cancer

Mammography

The best way to fight breast cancer is to know your body and have a plan that helps you detect the disease in its early stages.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the best way to find breast cancer early is with a mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast and can detect breast cancer up to two years before a tumor can be felt by you or your doctor. The American Cancer Society recommends that you:
  • Get regular mammograms. Work with your doctor to set up a schedule that is right for your age and situation. Yearly mammograms are recommended for women age 40 or older who are at average risk of breast cancer. Women at high risk should have yearly mammograms along with an MRI starting at age 30.
  • Follow up on your test results. Don’t assume that your results were normal. Call your doctor’s office to confirm.
  • Try to have your mammogram at the same mammography center each year. This way, your results can be compared from year to year.

Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)

In the early stages of breast cancer, the cancer is too small to feel and does not cause signs and symptoms. As it grows, however, breast cancer can cause changes in how the breast looks or feels. Some symptoms may include:
  • Change in breast size or shape
  • Lumps or thickening of breast tissue
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Swelling, redness or warmth that does not go away
  • Pain in one spot that does not vary with your monthly cycle
  • Pulling in of the nipple
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly and appears only in one breast
  • An itchy, sore or scaling area on one nipple
  • During a clinical breast exam, your doctor examines your breasts and the surrounding area for any possible signs of breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women in their 20s or 30s should have a clinical breast exam about every three years as part of a general health exam. Women over 40 should have a clinical breast exam once a year.

Breast Self Exam

Women should begin monthly self-exams beginning at age 20. Examining yourself on a regular basis allows you to become familiar with your breasts and increases the likelihood that you will notice any changes. While finding a breast change does not necessarily mean that there is a cancer, you should report any new breast changes to a health professional as soon as they are found. Breast self-exams should never replace regular mammograms and clinical breast exams.

How to examine your breasts

The best time for a woman to examine her breasts is when the breasts are not tender or swollen—approximately one week after your period if prior to menopause. The American Cancer Society recommends that you:
  1. Lie down and place your right arm behind your head. It is much easier to feel all of the breast tissue when lying down because the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest wall and is as thin as possible.
  2. Use the finger pads of the 3 middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use overlapping dime-sized circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
    Self Exam 1Self Exam 2
  3. Use 3 different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue: Light pressure is needed to feel the tissue closest to the skin; medium pressure to feel a little deeper; and firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs.
    • It is normal to feel a firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast, but you should tell your doctor if you feel anything else out of the ordinary. If you're not sure how hard to press, talk with your doctor or nurse. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
  4. Move around the breast in an up and down pattern starting at an imaginary line drawn straight down your side from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone (sternum). Be sure to check the entire breast area going down until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collar bone (clavicle).
  5. Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam.
  6. While standing in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips, look at your breasts for any changes of size, shape, contour, or dimpling, or redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.
    • Pressing down on your hips contracts the chest wall muscles and enhances any breast changes.
  7. Examine each underarm while sitting up or standing and with your arm only slightly raised so you can easily feel in this area. Raising your arm straight up tightens the tissue in this area and makes it harder to examine.