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Cancer sucks. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed in 2017 in the United States. Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, right behind skin cancers. This accounts for nearly one in three cases of cancers.

These facts alone are hard hitting, but the good news is that early detection can help.

According to The Keep A Breast Foundation, 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are self-detected, meaning, early detection is vital for survival rates. Early detection methods can include regular clinical screenings, such as a mammogram, or at-home self exams. The American Cancer Society recommends your primary method be a doctor-administered mammogram. Due to inconclusive research, the ACS says that self exams should not be relied on as your only detection source. However, the organization still advocates for women being familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel so you can report any changes immediately to your health care provider.

Regardless of self exams’ proven efficacies, researchers say that knowing what your normal breasts feel like and noticing when changes in your body occur could empower you to have control over your breast health, and still be a key to early detection.

So, how exactly do you conduct a self breast exam? Here are five helpful tips to get you familiar with your breasts, in the event that something unfamiliar appears. Remember that everyone’s breasts look a little different, so it’s important to know what your normal looks like.

  1. Do a visual inspection. Look in the mirror for any visible rashes, swelling or irregularities, such as dimples.
  2. Sit or stand and examine the breast area physically, using varied soft, medium, and hard pressure on all parts of the breast (your breast tissue extends into your underarms, so make sure you’re thorough).
  3. Notice any unexpected pain, lumps, or drainage? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Remember that your body physically changes – cramps, bloating, swollen breasts – with your menstrual cycle each month, as it also does during pregnancy due to natural changes in estrogen levels. Keep an eye on what you’ve found and call your healthcare provider if it is still there after your cycle is complete.
illustration of hands how to perform breast exam

How to conduct a self check

Illustration by Jillian Barthold

While some symptoms can be caught early, being proactive about your health is the best way to stay in check. Of course, everyone’s bodies are different so make sure to ask your healthcare provider for the best self exam method and recommendations.

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.