Should You Be Doing Breast Self-Exams?

September 10, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Denise L. Johnson Miller, M.D. contributes to topics such as Breast Surgery.

Leslie L. Montgomery, M.D. contributes to topics such as Breast Cancer, Breast Surgery.

Renee Armour, M.D. contributes to topics such as Breast Surgery.

For decades, breast self-exams were routinely recommended as an early detection tool for breast cancer, but recent research is questioning the benefits of these exams. The study showed that self-exams do not lead to early detection of breast cancer or increase women’s survival rates. Furthermore, the research showed that, in some cases, these exams had caused harm by leading to unnecessary biopsies and emotional stress.

Looking at Your Risk Level

“Because of these findings, many major breast cancer health organizations like the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen no longer recommend self-exams as a screening tool for women who have an average risk of breast cancer,” says Renee Armour, M.D., a board-certified general surgeon with a specialization in breast surgery from JFK Medical Center.

Women with an average risk are defined as having no personal or strong family history of breast cancer, don’t carry a genetic link to breast cancer and have not received radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30, among other factors like advancing age, obesity and drinking alcohol.

In some cases, especially for those who are at high risk for breast cancer, some doctors may continue to recommend self-exams for cancer screening.

What To Do Instead

Despite the research negating the advantages of self-exams for cancer screening purposes, every woman should still be very familiar with the normal look and feel of her breasts and nipples. Things to keep an eye out for include:

  • Hard lumps near your armpit
  • Bulges, puckers or dimples in the skin
  • A nipple that suddenly begins to invert rather than stick out
  • Swelling, pain or redness
  • Sores, rashes or itching
  • A bloody nipple discharge

“If anything out of the ordinary is noticed, immediately bring it to your doctor’s attention,” says Leslie L. Montgomery, M.D., FACS, chief, Division of Breast Surgery, Hackensack University Medical Center and co-director, Breast Service, John Theurer Cancer Center. “But try not to panic, as many lumps and changes are usually benign.”

How to Conduct “Breast Awareness” Self-Exams

To begin a self-exam for breast awareness, make sure to examine your breasts both while standing and lying down, and observe their appearance while looking in a mirror. Choose a time of the month to do this when your breasts are not tender, usually a few days after your period ends if you are still menstruating.

As for preferred guidelines for cancer screenings, mammograms continue to be the method of choice, with specific recommendations based on age and risk factors. Unlike breast self-exams, mammography can find breast cancer before lumps are large enough to be felt.

“Women with an average risk level should begin talking to their doctor about mammograms when they are 30 years old and should start annual mammograms at 40. Screening mammograms should continue as long as you are healthy,” says Denise L. Johnson Miller, M.D., FACS, medical director, breast surgery, Hackensack Meridian Health Cancer Care of Monmouth and Ocean counties. “Additionally, adult women should have annual clinical breast exams by their gynecologist or primary care physician.”

If you have any of the high-risk factors, like a genetic predisposition or family history, screening should begin earlier, as advised by your doctor. For the best breast cancer-screening plan for you, talk to your doctor.

Dr. Montgomery is located at 20 Prospect Avenue (Suite 402) in Hackensack. Call 551-996-8778 to make an appointment. Dr. Armour is located in Edison. To make an appointment, call 732-744-5550. Dr. Johnson Miller is located at HOPE Tower (19 Davis Avenue, 1st Floor) in Neptune. Call 732-263-7960 to make an appointment.

All of the physicians mentioned in this article are part of Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, a network of over 1,000 physicians and advanced providers at more than 300 practice locations throughout New Jersey. Visit HMHMedicalGroup.org for more information.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.