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.