How Knowing Your Breasts Can Keep You Healthy

Self-breast exams are a staple of womanhood but new recommendations go beyond lump hunting and instead have women getting to know their breasts.

One in eight women in the United States will develop a form of invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.

Now, that’s only about 12 percent, according to, but it’s still a scary statistic for women, which is why most women are taught to be proactive about their breast health by looking for lumps and reporting odd changes to her healthcare provider.

But a new American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommendation called self-breast awareness goes beyond the traditional exam so that women get to know their breasts, so it’s easier to spot something abnormal.

So, what is self-breast awareness and how does it differ from the monthly self-breast exams of our mothers?

Dr. Cristina Alfieri, an OB/GYN with Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit, explains how and why you should adopt self-breast awareness and how to check for lumps, too.

Beyond touch and feel

Traditional self-breast exams involve feeling the breast and armpit tissues once a month looking for changes in the tissue.

“A woman should put her arm over her head and palpate in circles toward the nipple and the armpit looking for lumps,” Alfieri says.

Self-breast awareness, which became prevalent within the last two years, takes that a step further by encouraging women to get to know their bodies, in a more individualized approach.

“The method would be somewhat similar to a breast exam, the nine year vet explains. “You’re using the hands to learn the texture and shape of the breast, and (also) knowing the skin and discharge.”

She says that it’s important that in addition to the self-breast exam, women take a look in the mirror to look for normal markings on their skin and also how their breasts are shaped.

The recommendation also eliminates the guidelines on how often women should check for changes.

“As far as I know, there are no guidelines on how often one should do it, but women should be periodic and should know changes that happen with your menstrual cycle,” Alfieri explains.

This means checking for changes more than once during your menstrual cycle so that you can recognize normal occurrences during your cycle from abnormal ones, which include lumps, nipple discharge if you’re not lactating, asymmetrical swelling, skin irritation, pain or redness in the nipple and swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpit.

“It’s about knowing how your breast is and spotting changes in it,” she says. “We’re trying to move away from women being systematic and examining every month to a more holistic approach that teaches women how their breasts change and finding out what is normal for them.”

Other tidbits

Alfieri says that once a woman hits adulthood they can start self-breast awareness and even sooner if they wish, because there is no minimum age to start. Yearly clinical breast exams done by a doctor start at age 18 and yearly mammograms, an x-ray of the breast that allows a doctor to look for abnormalities, start at age 40 – unless there’s a family history of breast cancer.

Men are also susceptible to breast cancer though as notes, their risk is about one in 1,000.

Men should look for the same signs as women – lumps, pain, discharge and swelling – to catch the disease early.

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