The Pros & Cons of Breast Self-Examinations

Detecting breast cancer can be a complex process that requires close examination and expert opinions. As the second-most common cancer in women, it is essential that women are vigilant in understanding their risk of developing breast cancer. Although some doctors recommend a monthly breast self-examination (BSE) as a routine proactive measure between annual check-ups and mammograms, there are mixed reviews about its effectiveness.

The American Cancer Society is informing women that a self-examination might not optimal for detecting breast cancer. In fact, in October 2015, they changed their recommendations to remove self-examinations from their suggested methods of early detection. The National Breast Cancer Foundation and other health experts, however, still encourage women to perform breast self-examinations on a monthly basis.

Although research doesn't show a significant benefit of performing a breast self-exam to find breast cancer, and most lumps are detected while doing everyday activities, some still find it to be a beneficial way to learn their breasts. Here are some ways to know if doing a self-examination of your breasts is the right choice.

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The Benefits of Breast Self-Examinations

Self-examining your breasts can alert you of any potential problems, and it may even lead you to a cancer diagnosis. Although they are not foolproof, performing these exams can aid in the understanding of your breasts and their overall health.

Pro: You May be Able to Detect Irregularities

The main purpose of a self-examination is to monitor the health of your breasts, as well as to look for lumps or other irregularities. During a self-exam, it's important to look at your breasts in the mirror, making sure they appear their usual size and shape. It's also recommended that you feel your right breast with your left hand, and your left breast with your right hand. Using circular motions and firm pressure, use your finger pads to check your entire breast for lumps. You should also check your underarms during this process. Conducting a thorough monthly examination of your breasts could tip you off to some red flags that may be a result of breast cancer.

Some Irregularities to Monitor

  • Lumps
  • Dimples or irritation of the skin
  • Pain or swelling
  • Thickening or redness of the nipple or skin
  • Discharge from the nipple

Performing a breast exam routinely and keeping record of any changes you notice can help you recognize potential concerns to bring to your doctor. Although not all lumps are cancerous, and not all abnormalities result in breast cancer, it can be good to monitor changes in your body and get a second opinion.

Pro: It Can Give You Peace of Mind

Regularly checking your breasts can help you feel in control of your body. One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer, so it can be a precautionary measure to conduct a self-exam. If you have a relative who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk nearly doubles, so performing routine self-exam in between annual mammograms and screenings with your doctor may alleviate some stress associated with breast health.

Pro: You Will Learn to Know Your Breasts

Although the American Cancer Society recommends knowing your breasts rather than conducting self-exams on a monthly basis, it may take some examining to learn what is normal for you. Women typically discover lumps and other abnormalities by performing everyday activities, such as bathing and dressing, but it's important to understand your breasts enough to know when something changes.

If you are younger than 40, or younger than 30 and you have a history of breast cancer in your family, you are not required to have a mammogram and screening every year. You can decide whether you want to follow through with a more formal self-exam, or periodically check for any changes toward the end of your menstrual cycle as needed.

The Drawbacks of Breast Self-Examinations

Aside from the fact that many health care professionals have stopped recommending self-examinations, and some even discourage it since there isn't significant information to prove that they are overwhelmingly beneficial in detecting breast cancer early. Below are a few drawbacks of performing breast self-exams.

Con: You May Misdiagnose

Most lumps and breast changes are not cancerous. Benign breast conditions are common, and although they may increase your chances of developing breast cancer in the future, they are often not life-threatening. Cysts, non-cancerous tumors, and mastitis are just a few conditions that can mimic signs and symptoms of breast cancer. It's important to get a second opinion from a doctor and undergo a mammogram and MRI to better diagnose the condition, even if the symptoms can be attributed to a benign condition.

On the other hand, breast cancer misdiagnosis can also occur when a cancer is left undiagnosed, you receive a false positive, or it is diagnosed as another form. Misdiagnosis occurs in one out of 71 cancer cases and can create a slew of other health problems. It's important to go to a certified professional for all your health concerns, be aware of the age-based cancer screening process, and know if you are at a high risk for breast cancer. This will help you to know what is standard practice and what screenings you should have.

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Con: Self-Examinations Can Stir Up Unnecessary Anxiety

Cancer can be a scary and life-altering condition, and the potential of being diagnosed is equally scary. If you self-examine frequently, make sure you are doing so with the intention of checking for overall health rather than actively looking for an abnormality. Finding an irregularity in your breast can give you unneeded anxiety, especially if it turns out to be a non-cancerous condition. Also, you may have to wait several weeks before meeting with a doctor or getting any type of result. Keep in mind that self-examinations have not been proven to find breast cancer any earlier than a mammogram, but some doctors still recommend it simply as a proactive measure.

Con: They May Not be as Beneficial as You Think

Though it is most commonly performed to detect breast cancer, self-examination should never be used to replace a mammogram or MRI in the diagnosis process. If you are at a high risk for breast cancer based on a family history, you should visit a doctor annually for a screening. Women at average risk should get breast cancer screenings as needed at a young age, annually from ages 45 to 54, and every other year after age 55. If you notice a change in your breast either by conducting a breast self-examination or by chance, contact your doctor to schedule a screening.

Is a Breast Self-Examination Right for You?

Conducting a breast self-examination is mainly personal preference. If you choose to examine your breasts between check-ups or if you decide that it might not be an effective option, the choice is yours. The important thing to remember is that, regardless of what you decide, you should still consider the recommended protocols for breast cancer screenings and never substitute a self-examination for a screening.