Do you still need to do breast self-exams?
Dear Mayo Clinic:
I’m confused about breast self-exams. I’m 45 years old, and I remember being told to do self-exams monthly. At one point, my healthcare provider even gave me a laminated card to put in the shower that showed the correct technique.
Now it seems self-exams aren’t talked about much anymore. Are we still supposed to do them?
Answer: You are correct that the role of breast self-exams has changed. While detailed breast self-exams no longer are recommended as part of formal screening for breast cancer, it is still important for you to know how your breasts usually look and feel.
That way, if anything changes, you will be more likely to notice the difference. Breast self-awareness can help you become more familiar with your own breasts, so you understand what’s normal for you.
In the past, healthcare providers often recommended that women do breast self-exams regularly using a step-by-step approach to detect signs of breast cancer.
Although breast self-exams seemed like a good way for women to find breast cancer in its early stages, research showed that those self-exams triggered more breast tests and biopsies being done that came back with normal findings (sometimes called false positives) in women who did breast self-exams, compared to women who did not do the exams.
Now, instead of using detailed self-exams as part of a formal breast cancer screening process, healthcare providers recommend breast self-awareness, so that women become familiar with the normal look and feel of their breasts.
That way, if you notice a change in your breast, such as a lump or bump that seems out of the ordinary to you, you can tell your healthcare provider about it. From there, the two of you can decide if any further investigation is needed.
Get clinical exams, mammograms
Although it is a good idea for you to be aware of the typical look and feel of your breasts, keep in mind that breast self-awareness can’t replace a clinical breast exam conducted by your healthcare provider.
And breast self-awareness should not replace screening mammograms or other breast cancer screening tests that your healthcare provider recommends.
Mammograms continue to play a key role in early breast cancer detection and have been shown to help decrease breast cancer deaths.
Screening mammograms often can detect breast changes in women who have no new noticeable breast abnormalities or any other signs or symptoms of cancer. The goal of these screening mammograms is to detect cancer in its earliest stage, before you’d be able to notice any changes.
Take time to talk to your healthcare provider about the approach to breast cancer screening that’s right for you. Factors that can make a difference in that approach include your age, medical background and family history, among others.
Discuss the benefits, risks and limitations of screening tools, such as mammograms, and decide together what is best for your situation.
— Karthik Ghosh, M.D., Breast Diagnostic Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.
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