How to check for breast cancer

A breast exam by a health professional (such as your doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant) is an important part of routine physical checkups.

How Often Should I Have a Clinical Breast Exam?

You should have a clinical breast exam every one to three years starting at age 20 and every year starting at age 40. A clinical breast exam may be recommended more frequently if you have a strong family history of breast cancer.

When Should I Schedule a Clinical Breast Exam?

Breast exams are best performed soon after your menstrual period ends, because your breasts will not be as tender and swollen as during your period. This makes it easier to detect any unusual changes. If you have stopped menstruating, schedule the yearly exam on a day that’s easy for you to remember, such as your birthday.

What Happens During a Breast Exam?

Before your breast exam, your health care provider will ask you detailed questions about your health history, including your menstrual and pregnancy history. Questions might include what age you started menstruating, if you have children, and how old you were when your first child was born.

A thorough breast exam will be performed. For the exam, you undress from the waist up. Your health care provider will look at your breasts for changes in size, shape, or symmetry. Your provider may ask you to lift your arms over your head, put your hands on your hips or lean forward. They will examine your breasts for any skin changes including rashes, dimpling, or redness. This is a good time to learn how to do a breast self-exam if you don’t already know how.

As you lay on your back with your arms behind your head, your health care provider will examine your breasts with the pads of the fingers to detect lumps or other changes. The area under both arms will also be examined.

Your health care provider will gently press around your nipple to check for any discharge. If there is discharge, a sample may be collected for examination under a microscope.

Complete Breast Cancer Screening

Clinical exams and breast self-awareness are important methods of early breast cancer detection and should be performed along with mammography. All three of these methods provide complete breast cancer screening.

How to check for breast cancer

Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms.

Breast cancer screening external icon means checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. All women need to be informed by their health care provider about the best screening options for them. When you are told about the benefits and risks of screening and decide with your health care provider whether screening is right for you—and if so, when to have it—this is called informed and shared decision-making.

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations

The United States Preventive Services Task Force external icon (USPSTF) is an organization made up of doctors and disease experts who look at research on the best way to prevent diseases and make recommendations on how doctors can help patients avoid diseases or find them early.

The USPSTF external icon recommends that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about when to start and how often to get a mammogram. Women should weigh the benefits and risks of screening tests when deciding whether to begin getting mammograms before age 50.

The Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines for Women chart pdf icon [PDF-138KB] compares recommendations from several leading organizations.

Breast Cancer Screening Tests

Where Can I Go to Get Screened?

You can get screened for breast cancer at a clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office. If you want to be screened for breast cancer, call your doctor’s office. They can help you schedule an appointment.

Most health insurance plans are required to cover screening mammograms every one to two years for women beginning at age 40 with no out-of-pocket cost (like a co-pay, deductible, or co-insurance).

Are you worried about the cost? CDC offers free or low-cost mammograms. Find out if you qualify.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. For many women, mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. At this time, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer for most women of screening age.

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

A breast MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the breast. Breast MRI is used along with mammograms to screen women who are at high risk for getting breast cancer. Because breast MRIs may appear abnormal even when there is no cancer, they are not used for women at average risk.

Other Exams

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes.

Breast Self-Awareness

Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern. These could include changes found during a breast self-exam. You should report any changes that you notice to your doctor or health care provider.

Having a clinical breast exam or doing a breast self-exam has not been found to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer.

Benefits and Risks of Screening

Every screening test has benefits and risks, which is why it’s important to talk to your doctor before getting any screening test, like a mammogram.

Benefit of Screening

The benefit of screening is finding cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.

Risks of Screening

Harms can include false positive test results, when a doctor sees something that looks like cancer but is not. This can lead to more tests, which can be expensive, invasive, time-consuming, and may cause anxiety.

Tests also can lead to overdiagnosis, when doctors find a cancer that would not have gone on to cause symptoms or problems, or even may go away on its own. Treatment of these cancers is called overtreatment. Overtreatment can include treatments recommended for breast cancer, such as surgery or radiation therapy. These can cause unnecessary and unwanted side effects. Other potential harms from breast cancer screening include pain during procedures and radiation exposure from the mammogram test itself. While the amount of radiation in a mammogram is small, there may be risks with having repeated X-rays.

Mammograms may also miss some cancers, called false negative test results, which may delay finding a cancer and getting treatment.

How to check for breast cancer

Magnetic resonance imaging may be used to diagnose breast cancer.

Doctors often use additional tests to find or diagnose breast cancer. They may refer women to a breast specialist or a surgeon. This does not mean that she has cancer or that she needs surgery. These doctors are experts in diagnosing breast problems.

  • Breast ultrasound. A machine that uses sound waves to make pictures, called sonograms, of areas inside the breast.
  • Diagnostic mammogram. If you have a problem in your breast, such as lumps, or if an area of the breast looks abnormal on a screening mammogram, doctors may have you get a diagnostic mammogram. This is a more detailed X-ray of the breast.
  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A kind of body scan that uses a magnet linked to a computer. The MRI scan will make detailed pictures of areas inside the breast.
  • Biopsy. This is a test that removes tissue or fluid from the breast to be looked at under a microscope and do more testing. There are different kinds of biopsies (for example, fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy, or open biopsy).

Staging

If breast cancer is diagnosed, other tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Whether the cancer is only in the breast, is found in lymph nodes under your arm, or has spread outside the breast determines your stage of breast cancer. The type and stage of breast cancer tells doctors what kind of treatment you need. For more information, visit Stages of Breast Cancer. external icon

This article was co-authored by Carrie Noriega, MD. Dr. Noriega is a Board Certified Obstetrician & Gynecologist and medical writer in Colorado. She specializes in women’s health, rheumatology, pulmonology, infectious disease, and gastroenterology. She received her MD from the Creighton School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska and completed her residency at the University of Missouri – Kansas City in 2005.

There are 28 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

This article has been viewed 51,198 times.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer is the leading cause of death for American women. Breast cancer is easier to treat when detected early, which makes breast awareness key to ensuring breast health. There are a number of ways you can check the health of your breasts and uncover potential abnormalities. [1] X Trustworthy Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Main public health institute for the US, run by the Dept. of Health and Human Services Go to source You should also be aware that although it is uncommon, men can get breast cancer, so if you are a male and have seen any changes in your breast tissue, see a doctor immediately. [2] X Trustworthy Source American Cancer Society Nonprofit devoted to promoting cancer research, education, and support Go to source

How to check for breast cancer

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer affecting women in the United Kingdom and in North America. Throughout your life you may have heard of the importance of conducting regular breast self-examinations to check for signs of breast cancer. While breast cancer self-exams can be done, physicians and health experts now advise women to increase their breast awareness.

What is Breast Awareness?

Breast awareness simply means becoming familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel and knowing what changes to look and feel for in your breast. This means to be aware of changes in the size of your breasts, changes in the nipples, nipple rash, nipple discharge, breast puckering or dimpling, lymph node swelling, breast pain, skin redness or breast lumps.

When to Start Breast Self-Exams

Health experts advise women to begin breast self-exams by the age of 20. Women should have a clinical breast exam by a physician every three years until the age of 40. After the age of 40, women should have a clinical breast exam and mammogram every year. It is recommended that women do a breast self-exam about a week after the first day of their period, when breasts are no longer swollen and tender due to hormonal fluctuations.

How to Conduct a Breast Self-Exam

Breast self examinations involve a visual inspection and physical examination.

Visual Examination

A visual examination involves standing in front of a mirror with your arms hanging down and looking at your breasts to check for puckering, dimpling, changes in breast size and texture and if your nipples are inverted. The two other positions to check for these changes are with your hands on your hips and your hands raised up with your palms pressed together.

Physical Examination

The physical examination is to check for lumps or any changes in the breast tissue. You can conduct the exam in the shower or lying down on a bed. There are two methods to conduct the physical examination, the clock pattern and the wedge pattern.

Clock Method

The clock pattern is where you envision the face of a clock on each of your breasts. You lie down with your left hand behind your head, and use your right hand to examine your left breast. Put your hand at top of the breast using your middle three fingers in the 12 o’clock position. Use your fingers in a massaging, clockwise motion to check for lumps. Then you move hour by hour, using the same motion and feeling for any changes in your breasts. After you have repeated one cycle, move your fingers closer to your nipple and repeat the process until you get to your nipple.

You should check both your left and right nipple for discharge by pinching with your fingers at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock and at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. When you are done with your left breast, put your right hand behind your head and use your left hand to examine your right breast in the same fashion. Make sure to feel your lymph nodes under your armpit as well as areas around your breasts for any tissue changes.

Wedge Method

The wedge method entails envisioning each breast as a pie divided into equal wedges. Lie down on a bed and place your left hand behind your head. Use your right hand to examine your left breast beginning at the top of your breast and working your way down to your nipple. Use your middle three fingers to massage firmly but gently from the top of the wedge to the bottom. Once you have completed the wedge, move your fingers to the next wedge going in a clockwise direction. For the opposite side, put your right hand behind your head and use your left hand to massage your right breast. Do not forget about checking lymph nodes under your armpit and tissue around your breasts. Examine your nipples for discharge.

Sweeping Method

If you are not comfortable with the clock or wedge methods, then you can use a simple sweeping technique with your three middle fingers. You begin at your collarbone and work in a clockwise direction from the outside of your breast towards the nipple. If you have larger or thicker breasts, use a walking motion with your fingers to feel for any lumps or changes. Do not forget to check your lymph nodes and nipples.

Detection of a Lump

If you find a lump in your breast, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible. Keep in mind that 80% of breast lumps are non-cancerous. More than 50% of women have what is known as fibrocystic breasts usually during their periods and menopause. Fibrocystic breasts are lumpy, painful and tender and develop when breast cells fill with fluid and form benign cysts in the breasts. These changes are attributed to hormone fluctuations during a woman’s menstrual period and menopause.

Pros and Cons of Breast Self-Exams

Breast self-exams in combination with clinical breast exams and mammography can reduce the risk of terminal breast cancer. By checking your breasts regularly you can identify a possibly cancerous lump and have it treated when the cancer is still in its early stages.

Breast self-exams by themselves do not reduce the number of people dying from breast cancer. Breast self-exams can miss tumors so it is important to have more than one method for screening for breast cancer. You may discover a lump and have an unnecessary biopsy conducted if the lump turns out to be benign.

How to check for breast cancer

Breast cancer can’t usually be prevented, but you can take three important steps to help detect it earlier. The free resource, 3 Steps to Early Detection, can increase your chance of finding breast cancer before it spreads.

Tell us where we can send you your copy.

How to check for breast cancer

Once A Month

Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. Johns Hopkins Medical center states,

“Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”

While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert your healthcare professional if there are any changes.

How to check for breast cancer

How Should A Breast Self-Exam Be Performed?

How to check for breast cancer

1) In the Shower

With the pads/flats of your 3 middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, hardened knot, or any other breast changes.

How to check for breast cancer

2) In Front of a Mirror

Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead.

Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match—few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.

How to check for breast cancer

3) Lying Down

When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently covering the entire breast area and armpit.

Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.

Can I Rely On Breast Self-Exams Alone To Be Sure I Am Breast Cancer Free?

Mammography can detect tumors before they can be felt, so screening is key for early detection. But when combined with regular medical care and appropriate guideline-recommended mammography, breast self-exams can help women know what is normal for them so they can report any changes to their healthcare provider.

If you find a lump, schedule an appointment with your doctor, but don’t panic — 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous. For additional peace of mind, call your doctor whenever you have concerns.

How to check for breast cancer

Medically Reviewed on April 15, 2020

Have You Noticed Changes In Your Breasts Recently?

Many breast cancer symptoms are invisible and not noticeable without a professional screening, but some symptoms can be caught early just by being proactive about your breast health. Keep your breast health in check with the Know the Symptoms guide today.

How to check for breast cancer

There’s never a wrong time to check for breast cancer. Regularly performing self-exams can alert women to abnormal lumps and dimples long before their next mammogram. 40% of all breast cancer is initially discovered by women performing at-home breast exams.

While you probably won’t start getting routine mammograms until your 40s, there’s no harm in performing at-home self-breast exams at any age, especially if you have a family history of cancer or are especially prone to breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

Before you begin your at-home examination, make sure you know what you’re looking and feeling for. Breast cancer can manifest in different types of visual symptoms. The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms :

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

Performing an At-Home Breast Examination

When performing an at-home breast examination, there are three different ways you should check for abnormalities: standing in front of a mirror, in the shower, and lying down. These steps should only take about a minute and shouldn’t be hard to work into your day every couple of months. Here is how to perform these self-exams:

In Front of the Mirror

With your chest bare and your arms at your sides, examine your breasts from the front and side, checking for abnormalities or inconsistencies in the tissue you don’t recognize. Then, raise your arms above your head, and examine your breasts from the front and side again. Having your arms raised will show you any changes in shape, swelling, the shape of the nipple, or the appearance of dimples.

In the Shower

When you’re next in the shower, use this exercise to check for lumps. First, starting with your left breast, raise your left arm behind your head and use the pads of your middle three fingers to apply pressure. Move your fingers, starting from the armpit, towards the nipple, pushing into the breast tissue as you move laterally. Repeat on the other side with your right arm up, and make sure to feel around the armpit area for any hard knots or abnormalities. Doing this in the shower is preferable because the water will reduce friction during your rubbing, and most women find it more comfortable to do it this way.

Lying Down

The last step is to check your breasts while you are lying down. This is important because you want to cover all of your bases. The breast tissue falls in a different way lying down than it does when you are standing up. In this position, the breast tissue is the most evenly spread out across your chest wall.

When checking your right breast, you’ll want to put a pillow under your right shoulder and have your right arm raised above your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your middle fingers across your right breast from armpit to sternum. Make shapes with your fingers–vertical lines, circles, figure-8s–to guarantee full breast coverage. At the end, squeeze your nipple slightly to check for any discharge.

What to Do if You Feel Something

If you feel something abnormal during these at-home exams, don’t panic. Contact your doctor, but be aware that 8 out of 10 lumps are non-cancerous. And, be familiar with what your breasts typically feel like since many can fluctuate in size and firmness during different menstrual cycle stages. This helps you know note abnormalities more confidently.

Checking for breast abnormalities routinely can save your life by detecting breast cancer early. It takes very little time, has a huge payoff, and can detect cancerous lumps before you reach the age of recommended breast cancer screenings.

How to check for breast cancer

Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms.

Breast cancer screening external icon means checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. All women need to be informed by their health care provider about the best screening options for them. When you are told about the benefits and risks of screening and decide with your health care provider whether screening is right for you—and if so, when to have it—this is called informed and shared decision-making.

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations

The United States Preventive Services Task Force external icon (USPSTF) is an organization made up of doctors and disease experts who look at research on the best way to prevent diseases and make recommendations on how doctors can help patients avoid diseases or find them early.

The USPSTF external icon recommends that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about when to start and how often to get a mammogram. Women should weigh the benefits and risks of screening tests when deciding whether to begin getting mammograms before age 50.

The Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines for Women chart pdf icon [PDF-138KB] compares recommendations from several leading organizations.

Breast Cancer Screening Tests

Where Can I Go to Get Screened?

You can get screened for breast cancer at a clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office. If you want to be screened for breast cancer, call your doctor’s office. They can help you schedule an appointment.

Most health insurance plans are required to cover screening mammograms every one to two years for women beginning at age 40 with no out-of-pocket cost (like a co-pay, deductible, or co-insurance).

Are you worried about the cost? CDC offers free or low-cost mammograms. Find out if you qualify.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. For many women, mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. At this time, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer for most women of screening age.

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

A breast MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the breast. Breast MRI is used along with mammograms to screen women who are at high risk for getting breast cancer. Because breast MRIs may appear abnormal even when there is no cancer, they are not used for women at average risk.

Other Exams

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes.

Breast Self-Awareness

Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern. These could include changes found during a breast self-exam. You should report any changes that you notice to your doctor or health care provider.

Having a clinical breast exam or doing a breast self-exam has not been found to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer.

Benefits and Risks of Screening

Every screening test has benefits and risks, which is why it’s important to talk to your doctor before getting any screening test, like a mammogram.

Benefit of Screening

The benefit of screening is finding cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.

Risks of Screening

Harms can include false positive test results, when a doctor sees something that looks like cancer but is not. This can lead to more tests, which can be expensive, invasive, time-consuming, and may cause anxiety.

Tests also can lead to overdiagnosis, when doctors find a cancer that would not have gone on to cause symptoms or problems, or even may go away on its own. Treatment of these cancers is called overtreatment. Overtreatment can include treatments recommended for breast cancer, such as surgery or radiation therapy. These can cause unnecessary and unwanted side effects. Other potential harms from breast cancer screening include pain during procedures and radiation exposure from the mammogram test itself. While the amount of radiation in a mammogram is small, there may be risks with having repeated X-rays.

Mammograms may also miss some cancers, called false negative test results, which may delay finding a cancer and getting treatment.