The Importance of Breast Exams

Health, Home & Family
on October 19, 2008

One of every eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer, which is why regular breast examinations are so important, especially for women 40 and older.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, and incidents of breast cancer are rising with the aging Baby Boomer population. But there's good news for women of all ages who regularly examine their breasts.

"Breast cancer survival is linked directly to early detection," says Connie Ziegfeld, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center in Baltimore. "If it's found early, it's less likely to have spread and more curable with less invasive treatment."

The American Cancer Society reports that, excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in the United States and is the leading cause of cancer death among women ages 40 to 54.

Yet, with early detection, more than 95 percent of women with breast cancer survive at least five years after diagnosis, expanding their treatment options and possibly minimizing the need for surgically removing the breast. Early detection also can lessen or eliminate the need for follow-up care such as chemotherapy or radiation.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, more than 2 million breast cancer survivors are alive in America today.

Early detection begins with women regularly examining their own breasts, combined with annual examinations by a trained medical professional.

If you've never done a self-exam, talk with your doctor or contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society or Susan G. Komen for the Cure. These organizations have teachers, brochures and websites where you can learn the fundamentals.

Premenopausal women, including teens, should examine their breasts a few days after the end of their periods—when breasts are least tender and swollen. Postmenopausal women can do their monthly exams on the same date every month.

Start by holding your arms at your sides and looking at your breasts in the mirror to check for changes in size, shape or color, dimpling, puckering or bulging of the skin. Check the nipples for secretions. Then raise your arms over your head and repeat.

While lying down, use the pads of your fingers on your right hand to examine your left breast. Working in areas about the size of a quarter, use light pressure followed by medium pressure and then firm pressure before moving to the next quarter-sized area. Using this method, cover the entire breast from top to bottom and side to side, including from collarbone to abdomen and armpit to cleavage.

"Self-examination is about getting familiar with your breasts so when there is a change, you can go to your doctor and find out what it means," says Susan Earnest, a registered nurse who works with breast cancer patients at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Ark.

If you find something suspicious, don't panic. An estimated 80 percent of breast abnormalities are not cancerous.

"Most lumps and breast changes are found by women themselves and are benign, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored," Ziegfeld says. "No woman should ever think a lump or a change in her breast is unimportant."

Annual mammograms
Regular mammograms are another key to early detection. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women 40 and older who are in good health. If you have a family history of breast cancer, your physician may recommend a different schedule.

Angela Santacroce, 44, of Woodbridge, Conn. (pop. 8,983), understands the importance of breast exams and screening. When a friend had a double mastectomy, she learned that self-exams and annual mammograms are a woman's first line of defense against breast cancer.

"I do self-breast exams once a month, sometimes more often," Santacroce says

She also gets regular checkups and has had annual mammograms since age 35. The earlier cancer is detected, the more treatment options a woman has and the better her chances of surviving, she says.