Did you know that most health insurance doesn’t cover mammograms until you reach the age of forty-five? Did you also know that early detection is the best chance of beating breast cancer? If you’re a woman, whether you’re still in college or have finished raising your children, don’t wait to be “old enough” for a covered mammogram. Instead, learn to do a breast self-exam, and repeat the procedure at least monthly.
Performing a breast self-exam isn’t difficult, and only takes a few minutes. There are three basic methods of examining your own breasts:
- Look in a Mirror: Stand in front of a mirror with your arms relaxed at your sides, then raise them up over your head, as if you were stretching to touch the ceiling. Study your reflection in the mirror, and look for any changes – including swelling, dimpling of your skin, or changes in your nipples. Next, place your palms on your hips and press firmly – this will help you flex your chest muscles. Study your reflection again, but don’t worry if your right and left breasts don’t look exactly the same size or shape – most women’s breasts do not match.
- Take a Shower: This is probably the easiest form of breast self-exam to insert into your routine, because we all take showers at least a few times a week. Before you end your shower, raise your right hand and put it behind your head. Then, using your left hand, and keeping the fingers flat, touch every part of your right breast, looking for any thickening of the tissue, lumps, or hard knots. You’ll want to make a point of noting any changes in the size or color of your breasts and nipples. Repeat the process with your left hand behind your head, using your right hand to examine your left breast.
- Lie Down: Lie flat in your bed with a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Just as in the shower method, use the fingers of your left hand – kept flat – to press your right breast in small circular motions moving either in a circular pattern around the entire breast, or from base to nipple. (As long as you cover the entire breast it doesn’t matter how you get there). You’ll want to use light, then medium, and finally firm pressure, and you should also squeeze your nipple, to check for discharge or lumps. Then, move the pillow so it’s beneath your left shoulder, switch hands, and repeat the process on your left breast.
Some changes are normal. Most women, for example, notice overall breast swelling as a part of pre-menstrual syndrome, or during their periods, and it’s not uncommon for the areola to darken during the same period, but you’ll very quickly learn what “normal” is for your breasts.
How important is this? Well, roughly 70% of all breast cancers are found through breast self-exams. If you should detect a lump while performing a self-exam, don’t panic, but do see your doctor as soon as possible. Eight out of ten breast lumps are not cancerous, so unless there is a history of breast cancer in your family, chances are high that you’ll be fine.
If the worst should happen, and cancerous cells are found, again, don’t panic. Modern breast cancer treatment doesn’t always mean a mastectomy – many women just have the lump removed and go through drug regimens (chemotherapy). Even better, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98%.