Why breast self-awareness is more important than self-exams

‘If you know what your normal feels like, you’re more likely to ID what’s abnormal’

Group of diverse women in pink breast cancer awareness shirts.

Breast awareness begins with knowing your body.

Sanford Health medical experts say that specific awareness is a key component to staying healthy because 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

Andrea Kaster, M.D., specializes in family medicine and breast health at the Edith Sanford Breast Center in Fargo, North Dakota.

While the occasional self-exam, or at-home inspection of your breasts, is important, Dr. Kaster instead encourages self-awareness every day.

She cites recent randomized controlled trials in Shanghai, which had providers instructing patients on detailed breast self-exams.

According to the results, patients who were instructed on detailed breast exams by their provider, did not see a reduction in breast cancer mortality and did not find more breast cancers. Rather they resulted in more workup (examinations), false positive findings, and benign breast biopsies.

The tide has turned from instructing detailed self-exams to more overall breast awareness.

“We don’t want to take away from being familiar with your body and knowing what feels normal for you and what your breasts feel like,” Dr. Kaster said.

Read: Five breast cancer screening options

Overall awareness of your own breast health allows you to notice even the smallest changes right away.

Changes you can look for at home

There are several things to which women should pay attention at home and report to a provider:

  • Any lump or mass that feels different than surrounding tissue
  • Changes in the skin, thickening or swelling
  • Changes to the nipple, pulling in or discharge
  • Skin changes to nipple, flaking or redness
  • Skin changes on breast itself, redness or rash

With any of these concerns, patients would be recommended a clinical exam, assessment, and imaging before a breast biopsy when appropriate.

Depending on age and risk factors, every patient’s journey will be a little different.

Some types of cancers can be hard to identify in women with dense breast tissue, those whose breasts are heterogeneously dense, or whose sensitivity is lower than women without dense tissue.

Frequently asked questions: What you need to know about breast cancer

Sanford Health recommends a clinical breast exam be completed every 1-3 years starting at age 25. Women considered average risk for breast cancer should get mammograms every year starting at age 40.

Those at higher risk may need to get screened earlier or more often. Learn more about your personal breast cancer risk by speaking with your primary care provider.

Feeling lumpy is common.

“I tell patients all the time ‘everybody’s lumpy’ when they think they’re the lumpiest person in the world when they feel their own tissue,” she said. “Everyone is lumpy to a different degree.

“If you know what your normal feels like, you’re more likely to be able to identify what is abnormal.”

Pay attention to your breasts every day

Bottom line: Know what is normal for you.

“We’re showering, we’re getting dressed and putting bras on,” Dr. Kaster said. “Paying attention through all of those daily routines is just as effective without the increased risk of benign breast biopsies associated with instruction on detailed self-breast exam.”

Learn more: Mammography: Answers to common questions

Patients are encouraged to practice breast self-awareness and report changes as soon as anything feels different.

“It’s not ignoring your breasts,” she added.

“It’s just a different approach to being aware of your breasts, familiar with your body and being able to report those changes right away.”

Learn more about preventing and treating breast cancer or finding a provider for your care at Sanford Health.

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings, Women's