breast self exam information

The thought of having breast cancer is frightening to everyone, and especially devastating to women. But ignoring the possibility that you may get breast cancer, or avoiding the processes to detect cancer, can be dangerous.

Although there are some women who are at higher risk, the fact is that all women are at risk for breast cancer. That is why it is so important to follow this three-step plan for preventive care. Although breast cancer cannot be prevented at the present time, early detection of problems provides the greatest possibility of successful treatment.

What is the three-step plan?

Routine care is the best way to keep you and your breasts healthy. Although detecting breast cancer at its earliest stages is the main goal of routine breast care, other benign conditions, such as fibrocystic breasts, are often discovered through routine care.

Step 1. Breast Self-Examination (BSE)

A woman should begin practicing breast self-examinations by the age of 20 and continue the practice throughout her life -- even during pregnancy and after menopause. BSE should be done regularly at the same time every month. Regular BSE teaches you to know how your breasts normally feel so that you can more readily detect any changes. Changes may include:

  • A change in the shape/size of breast
  • Development of a lump or swelling
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin
  • A discharge other than breast milk

If you notice any of these, see your health care provider as soon as possible for evaluation.

Step 2. Clinical Examination

A breast examination by a physician or nurse trained to evaluate breast problems should be part of a woman's physical examination.

  • Between the ages of 20 and 39, women should have a clinical breast examination by a health professional every 3 years.
  • After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.

A physical breast examination by a physician or nurse is very similar to the procedures used for breast self examination. Women who routinely practice BSE will be prepared to ask questions and have their concerns addressed during this time.

Step 3. Mammography

Mammography is a low-dose x-ray of the breasts to find changes that may occur. It is the most common imaging technique. Mammography can detect cancer, or other problems, before a lump becomes large enough to be felt, it can also assist in the diagnosis of other breast problems. However, a biopsy is required to confirm the presence of cancer.

Because when to begin and how often to have mammograms is controversial, it is best to talk with your physician about a mammography schedule that is appropriate for you -- based on your overall health and medical history, risk factors, and personal opinion or preference.

According to the National Cancer Institute, women in their 40s and older should begin having a screening mammogram on a regular basis, every 1 to 2 years. But, the American Cancer Society recommends (and we concur) that by age 40, women should have a screening mammogram every year. (A diagnostic mammogram may be required when a questionable area is found during a screening mammogram.)

Both organizations suggest that women who may be at increased risk for breast cancer should talk with their physicians about whether to begin having mammograms at an earlier age.

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