Breast Self Exam

Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) as part of a periodic (regular) health exam by a health professional, at least every 3 years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.

Clinical Breast Exam (CBE) is a complement to mammograms and an opportunity for women and their doctor or nurse to discuss changes in their breasts, early detection testing, and factors in the woman's history that might make her more likely to have breast cancer. 

There may be some benefit in having the CBE shortly before the mammogram. The exam should include instruction for the purpose of getting more familiar with your own breasts. Women should also be given information about the benefits and limitations of CBE and breast self exam (BSE). Breast cancer risk is very low for women in their 20s and gradually increases with age. Women should be told to promptly report any new breast symptoms to a health professional.

Breast Self Exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s.  Although research has shown that BSE plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply being aware of what is normal for each woman The American Cancer Society encourages annual clinical breast exams by a physician along with breast self-examinations (BSEs). Some women feel very comfortable doing BSE regularly (usually monthly after their period) which involves a systematic step-by-step approach to examining the look and feel of their breasts. Other women are more comfortable simply looking and feeling their breasts in a less systematic approach, such as while showering or getting dressed or doing an occasional thorough exam. Sometimes, women are so concerned about "doing it right" that they become stressed over the technique. Doing BSE regularly is one way for women to know how their breasts normally look and feel and to notice any changes. The goal, with or without BSE, is to report any breast changes to a doctor or nurse right away.

Women who choose to do BSE should have their BSE technique reviewed during their physical exam by a health professional.  By doing the exam regularly, you get to know how your breasts normally look and feel and you can more readily detect any signs or symptoms if a change occurs, such as development of a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk.  Should you notice any changes you should see your health care provider as soon as possible for evaluation. Remember that most of the time, however, these breast changes are not cancer.  To see an example of a real breast exam, click on the video below.

Last Medical Review: August 2010