Breast self-exams are one of the most important tools around for detecting breast cancer, and they are still how most breast lumps are detected. While annual exams and mammograms are important, doing a monthly self-exam can help find less obvious problems or spot changes sooner when they are more easily treated. That’s why it’s important for every woman to know how and when to do them.

While most people think self-exams are all about feeling for lumps, the first step is to simply look at your breasts. Do this by looking in a mirror, first with your arms down, then with them raised. There are several different things you need to look for:

* Changes in shape or size. While it is common for breasts to be two different sizes, watch to make sure one isn’t growing faster than the other. This could be a sign of a problem. Also look for visibly lumpy or uneven breasts.

* Changes in color. Look for general color changes as well as rashes on the skin.

* Texture changes. Examine each breast for rippling, dimpling, or bulging. You should also note the shape and direction of the nipples.

* Discharge. Check to see if there is any liquid or gooey discharge coming from the nipples.

The next step is to feel for lumps in your breasts. This needs to be done twice, once while standing up, and once while laying flat on your back. Many women prefer to feel for lumps while in the shower because it’s easier to move soapy fingers across the skin.

Put one arm behind your head as you examine the breast on that side. Slowly move your fingers in a circular motion applying soft, medium, and firm pressure to each spot to ensure you examine deep and shallow tissues. While different women use different patterns around the breast, the key is to make sure you cover every spot.

Remember, most breast lumps are not cancer. Pay attention for lumps that persist more than a month, or that grow or change shape with time. You doctor can perform tests to determine if a bump is cancerous or benign; so you should see them with any concerns.

It is important to perform breast self-exams regularly, not just once or twice. This is because a breast exam is looking more for changes rather than problems that are noticed with one exam. You need to know how your breasts look and feel normally to determine if something has changed or is changing. This means keeping it up regularly to find problem.

If you have breasts with a more lumpy consistency, or if you’re just not good at remembering your breast texture enough to notice changes, you might want to start keeping a journal. This way, you can make notes or even draw a quick sketch to help yourself remember. If you do notice changes, you can simply take the journal to your doctor to help find the problem.

Because your breasts change somewhat during your cycle, perform exams at the same time every cycle. While some people pick a day every month, this will gradually move to different times in your menstrual cycle. A better time would be to perform is right after the end of your period every month.

While mammograms and annual exams are also essential, the self-exam is your most powerful tool in detecting breast cancer.

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