One way you can play a part in your own health is by doing a monthly breast exam. Although your doctor will do a full breast exam at your annual visit, doing your own monthly breast exam will make you very aware of any changes in your breasts. We recommend that girls in their late teens or early twenties start examining their breasts once a month.
The purpose of this breast exam is to look for lumps that may be cancerous. Now don't freak out! This sounds a lot scarier than it is, because the fact is, most lumps found in the breasts are not cancerous. And breast cancer is really rare in teenagers and women in their twenties—so right now you're pretty low risk.
Why do a breast exam?
Well first of all, by making this a habit now you'll get to know your breasts better than anyone. So if anything unusual develops, you'll know right away.
Many teens and women are afraid to examine their breasts because they're afraid they might find something or because they may not understand what they're feeling for. But if you know what you're looking for and understand the importance of why you're doing it, the exam will be easier.
When should you do it?
The monthly breast exam should be done after your period so there's less tenderness and swelling. After a few months of checking, you'll become the expert on your breasts. It's a good idea to go through the breast exam with your doctor to make sure you're doing it right. And remember, if you feel a lump or something abnormal, don't wait for it to go away. Consult your doctor immediately.
Breast exam steps
STEP 1—Check them out
Turn on a bright light. Standing naked from the waist up in front of a mirror, just look at your breasts. Do you notice anything that has changed like an inverted nipple, dimpled areas or rashes on the skin?
Next, put your hands on your hips and push down with your arms while pushing your chest out. Do you see anything unusual? The breasts should look the same without any unusual dimpling or puckering.
Squeeze each nipple gently to check for discharge. A clear discharge is normal. If the discharge is tinged with blood, contact your doctor.
STEP 2—Let your fingers do the walking
Lie down on your back (flat) with a pillow under your left shoulder and your left arm under your head. Imagine your breast is the face of a clock, with circles drawn on it—one inside the other (kind of like a spiral, or the rings around Saturn.)
With your RIGHT hand begin the examination at the 12:00 position, on the outermost (largest) "ring" of your breast. "Walk" your fingers, clock-wise, all around that outer circle until you get back to the top. Then move your fingers in about an inch toward your nipple, and do the same thing around the next, smaller "ring".
Continue this way until you've examined all the breast tissue and the nipple area as well. Don't forget to probe a bit more by making more gentle circles under your armpit, because breast tissue extends up and under the armpit. Also, if you have larger breasts, you may have to use both light and heavy pressure during your examination to make sure you have checked all of your breast tissue.
Now switch sides. Put the pillow under your right shoulder, put you right hand behind your head, and start feeling your right breast with the fingers of your left hand.
That's it! These steps are all you need to do. Your breast exam work will be backed up by exams at the doctor's office each year. In the meantime, report any changes in your breasts or any concerns that you have to your doctor so he/she can follow up with futher testing.