How To Do A Breast Self-Exam (BSE)

I am posting this (quick post, haha) because I do get asked this a lot, and I am not always able to explain verbally how to do a proper and effective breast self-examination for lumps.

Why is BSE important? It’s how many breast cancers are detected—sometimes by spouses who are so familiar with their wives’ bodies, they can tell the difference. I learned how to feel my breasts for lumps in my 20s, after my mother had her first experience with cancer. She was a nurse, and taught me how to do it properly, whether lying down (which was fine between the age of 22-31) or standing up facing a mirror (once the kids arrived my boobs began to descend in opposite directions towards my armpits so feeling for lumps in prone position was harder).

The best time to do your BSE is after your period, like a day or 2 days. Apparently the breasts won’t have so many cysts at that time of the month, so you can get a more accurate “reading” of lumps. It’s important to make it a habit, so for me, once my period is down to just a stain, I’ll do my BSE every month (okay, I did miss a month or two but I’d say I remembered 10 out of 12 months).

It’s also pretty important to do your BSE in front of a mirror. Breast cancers may cause some subtle puckering in the skin of the breast (makes it look a bit “orange skin”) or there may be a colour change in the breast, or sometimes you can actually observe a visual difference between right breast and left that could be indicative of an growth.

Standing in front of the mirror, raise your right arm and feel your breast with your fingertips (fold in your thumb and use four fingers). I make small circles with my fingers starting from the outermost part of the breast, moving in towards the nipple.

If you think you feel something lumpy (and many women’s breasts are fairly dense and lumpy-feeling), the way to check if it’s a lump is to feel the opposite breast in the same spot. If you feel a similar “lump” in the same spot, then most likely it is just breast tissue, not a growth.

What does a lump feel like? For me, I didn’t even feel a lump, but there was a “thickening” under the skin that I could faintly detect. It really was because I was so used to feeling my breasts that this subtle change was apparent to me. For other friends who have found cancerous growths, they mostly describe it as a “pea under the skin”.

Here is a diagram I borrowed from Medline Plus that shows you, visually, how to do your BSE. There are different methods — just pick the one that is most comfortable for you.

Three ways of conducting your breast self-exam

I hope this post has been useful! You can ask me anything if what I’ve written isn’t clear enough.

PS Whether you’re high-risk (like me) or not, BSE is still a good habit to form, judging from the calls and emails I am getting from women who don’t have any family history of breast cancer.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eileen liu kim ying
    Feb 08, 2011 @ 10:10:24

    you are doing a great job blogging about your breast cancer and raising awareness. i do not have breast cancer but in my late teens or early 20s ( i turn 35 this June 2011 ), i started have lumps popping up all over the place. by now there are practically everywhere , under the skin of my body ( eg : abdomen, buttocks ) legs, arms , forehead, very obvious in my neck -especially when i raise my head , breasts and many other places. ( only minor places are spared like fingers, toes , cheeks and earlobes etc ). i have long ago given up on doing breast examination cos there are quite a number of them in my breasts, big and small, i don’t know how to tell they are my normals lumps or breast cancer lumps. by the way , i seek medical advice on my lumps in my early 20s at National Skin Centre and the senior specialist even called a couple of junior doctors to come and observe. i remember that specialist told me something like my fats cannot be evenly distributed so they clustered to form lumps. and 2 out of 1000 ppl have my kind of condition ( gee how lucky i am ).

    last year, i went to polyclinic, they refused to let me register for a mammogram as i am ‘too young’. something like for those 40 and above. the GP however did do a hand exam for me. but i wonder to myself since it is GP, not a specialist, can he really tell my lumps apart from cancerous lumps.

    hmmm… i never thought to myself i would look forward to being 40. counting down … 5 more years to go.


    • threezframe
      Feb 08, 2011 @ 11:24:45

      Dear Eileen, thank you for your honest sharing — I think you are really brave and I admire your cool attitude. I’m glad you are being so diligent about looking after your health – more women should follow your example. Do take care and let me know how everything goes. Five years is not too long a time to wait. And speaking as someone in her 40s, I can tell life really begins at 40 — it’s fun being on this side 🙂


  2. kimmy
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 01:39:38

    I have this lump inside NY right breast up twords my armpit and I haven’t felt it ever before I’m only 19 so I’m concerned


    • threezframe
      Jun 01, 2011 @ 06:13:19

      Hi Kimmy

      Please please go and see a doctor. You’re young so it could be a cyst or sometimes, it’s nothing at all. I remember when I was in my 20s the doctor told me my breasts were “dense” and so sometimes I might feel lumps here and there. But please do have it checked. You can go to any polyclinic and let them know you have this, and would like a female doctor to help you.

      Do let me know if you need any other help.


  3. honey
    Apr 08, 2012 @ 13:19:04

    dear theresa, do u know if there are other causes of nipple indentationother then cancer? also pricking sensations… cat eat or sleep well. waiting for appointment soon.. praying hard


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