Are Breast Self-Exams Necessary?

pink bra breast cancer awarenessDo your breasts look normal? Do they feel normal? Would you be able to recognize if something was different about them? You may become more aware of your breasts during the month of October, but it’s important to get to know your breasts on a regular basis so that you know what “normal” is for your body. For years, a breast self-examination (BSE) performed once a month was the recommended way to help you know sooner rather than later when something is off and needs attention, but recent research is causing experts to think otherwise.

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Back in 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Screening for Breast Cancer released a recommendation declaring BSEs an ineffective screening tool and discouraged self exams based on findings that BSEs did not lower the risk of death from breast cancer. Primarily, evidence from two studies performed in China and Russia comparing women who performed BSEs with women who didn’t. Those that did the BSEs experienced similar breast cancer death rates and underwent more biopsies (which can be costly and painful) for benign tumors.


These days, many women are still feeling confused about whether to self exam or not.  Katrina Mark, M.D., a clinical instructor  at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and lead author of a paper published earlier this year in the journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology says, “The research has shown that the actual teaching of the self breast-exam and doing it monthly doesn’t improve outcomes or long-term survival.”

Instead of breast self-exams or the new “breast self-awareness” wording, she advises, that women should communicate to their doctors when they notice any changes to their breasts.

Abnormal changes to your breasts that you should communicate to your doctor are: 

  • Skin puckering
  • Discoloration
  • Discharge
  • Lumps that feel different from your normal breast “lumpiness”
  • Swelling of the breast
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Nipple abnormalities (such as pain, redness, scaliness, or turning inward)

READ: How Healthy Are Your Breasts?

Susan Brown, managing director of health and program education for Susan G. Komen, confirms that the organization no longer recommends breast self-exams and instead, urges women to know the signs, symptoms and risk factors of breast cancer. Being screened appropriately and taking steps like exercising and monitoring weight, can help minimize risk.

There’s no doubt that BSEs have, indeed, been a life-saver for many women who discovered something or prompted them to see their doctor. Although research says they may no longer be necessary to perform, will you continue to do breast self-exams?


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