Women's Health

Breast Self Exam Guide

Written by: Lisa English, PT, DPT

You may have heard from your doctor, social media, or other organizations and friends that early detection of breast cancer can come from a self exam. If you are an overthinker, like me, there can be anxiety around making sure you are doing the right thing. There are even some studies showing that frequent breast exams can lead to increased unnecessary biopsies because of benign findings. So what’s a girl to do? Perhaps these answers to common questions can help decipher the necessity of a self breast exam:

  1. Why am I supposed to do it monthly? Why not daily, or just yearly?

The underlying reason for a monthly breast exam is that it allows frequent enough examination for early detection. However, if the goal is to find a difference in tissue and you are checking yourself daily, you may miss the progression of an anatomical change that would be more apparent with at least 30 days in between. If you are only performing it a few times a year, you may not have familiarized yourself enough with what ‘normal’ is for your breast tissue.

Another reason has to do with timing of your cycle. Breast tissue can change with your menstrual cycle, being more tender or lumpy. If you are performing your exam during that time, you may find tissue that worries you, but it is normal. This is why it is recommended that you perform your exam 3-5 days after your period, when this tenderness and swollen nodules have subsided.

  1. Ok, so breasts can have lumps normally…what do I do if I find one?

There are typical differences between cancer lumps and benign lumps, so spend a moment to assess the lump you are feeling. Cancerous lumps are firmer in feeling and harder to move, as if they are rooted in place. They are also often more tender or painful. A ‘regular’ breast tissue lump is fluid-filled, so can be squisher, less painful, and is often described as being able to roll easily between your fingers.

  1. What if I have large breasts, or dense breasts. Am I going to be able to do this?

One part of the breast exam that sometimes gets forgotten is the visual observation. While searching your breast tissue for lumps can be helpful, it can be just as helpful to observe your breast tissue in a mirror, looking for new dimples or how the breast tissue is looking when you raise your arms up: does it pull in a funny, different way? And because breast cancer most often happens in one breast only, visually noticing asymmetries that weren’t there before can clue in to a tissue change.

And on top of all of these tips, there can still be underlying uncertainty about whether you are noticing early signs of cancer in your breast tissue or not. Do not forget, any concerns should always be addressed with your medical provider. And, mammograms are there, too! It is important that when you fall into the recommended age for a mammogram that you are getting these done! If you want to know more about how to perform your monthly breast exam, visit