Breast cancer

Updated 20 November 2017

Breast self-examination

Have you self examined your breasts? According to the experts, it is an essential tool in reducing the risk of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is easier to treat the earlier it is found – one of the most important tools for reducing the risk of breast cancer is Breast Self-Examinations (BSE), which should be conducted at the same time every month.

If you are still having your period, it is best to examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are less likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having your period, choose a day that is easy to remember – and record it in a diary if necessary.

The BSE is split up into two distinct parts – the visual exam and the tactile exam, when you feel the breast and the area surrounding it for any lumps.

Follow these steps to ensure your BSE is done correctly:

Visual examination

  • Sit or stand in a comfortable position facing a mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips.
  • Look closely at your breast’s size and symmetry, however, please note that a slight variation in the size of each breast is common and generally normal.
  • Inspect the skin colour, vein pattern, and note any visible swelling or fluid retention.
  • Also look at your breasts with your arms up behind your head, with your arms down at your sides and bending forward, with your hands on your hips and with your arms relaxed hanging in front of you.
  • This is when regular BSE’s become important – if you check every month, you will know what your breasts really look like and will be able to spot any visual changes.

Sylvia Anne Lombard, Nursing Service Manager at Clinix Selby Park Hospital, says, “Most slight swelling, redness, rashes or other skin presentations are normal, but if they continue or worsen, they should be evaluated to rule out a serious breast abnormality. Any change in the nipple, such as retraction (your nipple becoming inverted, when it was not previously) or nipple discharge, requires further evaluation.”

Tactile examination

  • While you are in front of the mirror, gently squeeze each nipple to check for nipple discharge, which could be a milky or yellow fluid or blood.
  • Lie down and use your right hand to feel your left breast and your left hand to feel your right breast.
  • Use a firm, smooth touch, keeping the fingers flat and together.
  • Make sure you examine the entire surface of the breast tissue, which stretches from your collarbone to the bra line and from the breastbone to the middle of your underarm.
  • Follow a pattern to ensure you cover the entire breast.
  • You may choose to proceed in a clockwise direction, following imaginary concentric circles from the outer limits of the breast toward the nipple, or you can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows.
  • Many women find it easier to examine their breasts when the skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do the tactile part of the BSE in the shower.
  • In this case, instead of lying down, you would stand up or sit down using the same hand movements as described above.

The BSE is an important part of your health routine, and is part of a three-pronged attack, which should include a Clinical Breast Examination, conducted by an experienced doctor, and annual mammograms for women aged 40 or older.

(Press release from the Clinix Health Group)


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Ask the Expert

Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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