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Know exactly what to do, and what to look for, so you can keep on top of your health.

Life can get busy, but you’re never too busy to take a moment to check on your health. A monthly, at-home breast exam is just one of the many ways you can keep on top of any changes with your body.

Along with your regular mammogram, monthly breast self-exams give you the opportunity to check for variations in skin texture, bumps or changes in your breasts.

But, exactly how do you do a breast self-exam? We’re breaking it down for you with Rebecca Jordan, DO, a breast surgeon at Geisinger.

Performing a breast exam at home

It’s a good idea to align these monthly self-exams with your menstrual cycle. Choose a time when your breasts are the least tender or swollen. The best time is often the week after your period ends.

“Looking at a mirror, keep your arms at your sides to start,” says Dr. Jordan. “And remember that the key to these exams is to look for any changes compared to the previous month.” You’ll begin your self-exam by looking for any visual changes in your breasts’ appearance.

Visual changes in your breast appearance may include:

  • Puckering or dimpling of the skin
  • Changes in your breast size
  • Nipple inversion

Next, lie down to spread out your breast tissue to make it easier to feel for any bumps or lumps. Take your time as you feel around your breast and stick to a pattern — such as moving clockwise or up and down.

“Use the pads of your fingers to feel around, use different levels of pressure and gently squeeze your nipple to check for discharge,” says Dr. Jordan.

Examine your entire breast before moving to your other side and make sure to feel around your armpits, because your breast tissue extends up to that area.

You can also perform a self-exam in the shower, using soap so your fingers glide up and down your skin more easily.

When should you call your doctor to schedule a mammogram?

Remember, just because you feel a lump or have any symptoms doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. But it’s always a good idea to follow up with your doctor to rule it out.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • A hard lump in your breast or underarm
  • Bloody nipple discharge
  • Changes in your breast size
  • Nipple inversion
  • Pain redness, warmth or swelling in your breast
  • Puckering or dimpling
  • Scaly skin
  • Sores or rashes

At this appointment, your doctor will perform an external breast exam, like the one you get at your annual appointment. In some cases, they may recommend additional testing.

“For younger people, we may only recommend an ultrasound,” says Dr. Jordan. “Other times, we may recommend a magnetic resonance imagining test — or MRI — which can help when there have been no findings through other imaging tests but other symptoms present, including nipple discharge.”

Your doctor may even recommend a mammogram, especially if you have dense breasts or a lump that requires further testing. A mammogram, or low-dose X-ray exam of your breasts, will allow your doctor to detect any changes in your breast tissue that can’t be detected during a breast exam.

You'll be scheduled for either a screening mammogram or a diagnostic mammogram to determine the cause of your symptoms and come to a diagnosis.

“Remember that keeping on top of your health, including scheduling regular mammograms and self-exams, is important to detecting signs of breast cancer at their earliest stages — when they are easiest to treat,” says Dr. Jordan.

By following these steps each month, you’re doing just that — taking steps towards your healthiest self.

Next steps:

Learn what it means to have dense breast tissue
How to keep your breasts healthy
What to know before your first mammogram

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