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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month(opens in a new tab), and there is no better time than right now to be proactive about your breast health. The best way to catch breast cancer, or any health disease, is to get routine screenings and exams.

Regularly examining your breasts on your own can be a good way to spot breast cancer, but note that it should be used in addition to clinical screening methods. To raise awareness this month, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about breast exams and breast cancer.

How to Perform a Self Breast Exam

Performing regular self-exams can help you detect breast cancer early. If you regularly check your breasts, you can get used to how they normally look and feel, so you will know if there are any sudden changes. The recommended time to perform a self-exam is a few days after your period ends, as your breasts will likely be less sore and swollen.

There are five steps to performing a self-exam:

  • Step 1 - Look at your breasts in the mirror with your arms at your hips. You should look for your breasts to be their usual size, shape, and color, without visible distortion or swelling. If you see dimpling, redness, a rash, or an inverted nipple, bring it to your doctor’s attention.
  • Step 2 - Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes mentioned in step 1.
  • Step 3 - Look for any signs of fluid released from one or both of your nipples (this could be clear, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
  • Step 4 - Next, feel your breasts while lying down. Using the first few finger pads of your hand, keep your fingers flat and together, and move in a circular motion around the size of a quarter. Cover the entire breast from side to side and top to bottom, going from your collar bone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
  • Step 5 - Feel your breasts when you are standing or sitting. Many women opt to do this step in the shower, as it is easier to feel when your skin is wet. Repeat the same hand movements from step 4 to feel your breasts.

You should get used to performing self-exams so that you can catch any signs as early as possible. Keep in mind that most breasts will feel lumpy, so don’t panic at the slightest lump! If you notice any new or abnormal lumps, then it’s time to see your doctor. Self-exams, when done in combination with clinical exams, can contribute to the early detection of breast cancer.

What Occurs in a Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is performed by a medical professional such as your primary care provider or gynecologist. These professionals are trained to spot any abnormalities in the breast. There are a few parts to a breast exam:

  • Visual Check - During this part of the exam, you may be asked to switch into a few different postures, like putting your arms above your head or on your hips, allowing your provider to see any differences in size or shape between your breasts. The skin of your breasts may also be tested for any abnormal signs like a rash or dimpling, and your nipples may be checked for fluid release when squeezed.
  • Manual Check - In a manual exam, your healthcare professional will use their fingers to check your breast, collarbone, and underarm area for abnormalities, done on one side and then the other. They will also check the lymph nodes near the breast for any swelling or enlargement.
  • Assessment - If a lump is discovered, your health professional will assess its size, shape, texture, and movement. It could be a benign lump, unrelated to cancer, but it should often still be examined for further diagnosis. A benign lump, like a tumor or cyst, can be smooth, round, and movable, whereas a hard, oddly shaped, non-movable lump is more likely to be cancerous.

Clinical breast exams are essential to early detection. While many lumps are found during self-exams, an experienced professional can spot signs that a patient might miss. It is best to catch breast cancer in its early stages, so receiving routine breast exams is incredibly important. Also, note that women between the ages of 45 - 54 should get routine mammograms in addition to their annual physician visits.

Treatment Options for Breast Cancer

If your physician has spotted signs of breast cancer through exams, there are many options for treatment. Treatment often depends on the type of breast cancer and how far it has spread. People with breast cancer often receive more than one treatment. Some of them are:

  • Surgery - An option for many of those with breast cancer is surgery, in which doctors cut out the cancerous tissue.
  • Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells, either taken orally or given in your veins, sometimes both.
  • Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays, similar to X-rays, to kill the cancer cells.

While breast cancer cannot be prevented, it can be detected early which can make treatment more effective. Remember to give yourself regular exams, and see your doctor for routine clinical exams. If you or a loved one need treatment for breast cancer, Premier Medical Associates offers breast surgery with high success rates.

Premier Medical Associates is an affiliate of the Allegheny Health Network and is the largest multi-specialty physician practice in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. Our highly experienced care team provides services like breast surgery and primary care for you and your loved one’s needs. Visit our breast specialist doctor at our Monroeville office or call us at 412-457-0422 for more information.