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Breast Self-Exam (BSE)

Why do BSE?

Monthly BSE helps you know how your breasts normally feel, which can help you identify any changes. It’s easy and takes just a few minutes a month.

Most breast lumps are found by women themselves. While most lumps aren’t cancer, early detection saves lives.

When to do BSE

The best time is right after your period, when your breasts aren’t tender or swollen. If your periods are irregular, choose one day a month to do BSE. Women taking birth control pills have a built-in reminder – do your BSE when beginning a new pill pack.

Doing BSE

The steps that follow are a guide to breast self-exam. Ask your health care provider for more information and to check your technique during your next appointment.

  • Lie down and put a pillow under your right shoulder. Place your right arm behind your head.
  • Use the pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps or thickening in your right breast. Your finger pads are the top third of each finger.
  • Press firmly enough to know how your breast feels. A firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast is normal. If you’re not sure how hard to press, ask your health care provider, or try to copy the way your provider does a breast exam.
  • Move around the breast in a set way. Choose either a circle, up and down, or a wedge shape. Doing BSE the same way every time will help you be sure you’ve examined your entire breast, and to remember how it feels.
  • Now, examine your left breast using the finger pads of your right hand.
  • Then stand, place your arm behind your head and reexamine both breasts; switch arms when you switch breasts. The upright position makes it easier to check the upper and outer part of the breasts, toward your armpit. You may want to do the standing part of the BSE in the shower; some breast changes can be felt more easily when your skin is wet and soapy.
  • After your BSE, stand in front of a mirror and check your breasts for any skin dimpling, changes in the nipple, redness, or swelling.

If you find something...

If you notice a lump or see any breast changes, make an appointment with your health care provider right away.

Breast Cancer

Early detection

The goal of breast self-exams, clinical breast exams and other screenings is to find cancers as early as possible, before they start to cause symptoms.

Breast cancers that are detected after they begin causing symptoms tend to be larger and are likely to have spread beyond the breast; those found during screenings are more likely to be small and still confined to the breast. When detected, the cancer’s size and spread are the most important predictors of a woman’s chances for survival.

What to do:

UHS supports the American Cancer Society's guidelines for finding breast cancer early in women without symptoms:

  • Women age 20 or older: The ACS recognizes regular breast self-exam (BSE) as an early detection option, with benefits and limitations. But, it's OK not to do BSE, or not to do it on a fixed schedule. If you decide to do BSE, read and learn the process at the left; ask your healthcare provider to check your method to be sure you're doing it right.
  • Women ages 20 – 39: Have a clinical breast examination by a health professional every three years.
  • Women 40 and over: Have a clinical breast exam and a screening mammogram every year. The exam should be done close to, and preferably before, the mammogram.
  • Women at higher risk: Your clinician can help determine whether or not you might be at higher risk of breast cancer. If so, options include starting mammograms at a younger age, having extra screenings or more frequent exams.

If you notice changes in your breasts, such as development of a lump or swelling; skin irritation or dimpling; nipple pain or retraction (turning inward); redness or scaliness; or a discharge other than breast milk, see your health care provider as soon as possible.

Remember: most of the time, these breast changes aren’t cancer.