Breast Self Examination

Early detection of breast cancer can help improve survival. Breast awareness (i.e., knowing what is and is not normal for your breasts) is an important part of early detection. Performing breast self examinations regularly can help women become familiar with their breasts and become more skilled at determining what is and is not normal.

The best time to perform a breast self exam (BSE) is when the breasts are not tender or swollen. Because many women experience tenderness and lumpiness in their breasts prior to menstruation, breast self exams should be performed after menses. Many health care providers advise women to perform a breast self examination regularly every month, on the day following their menstrual period.

During breast self examinations, women should check for changes in the texture, shape, color, and symmetry of the breasts; nipple discharge; and lumps. Any changes should be reported to a health care provider immediately.

How to Perform a Breast Self Exam

Breast Self examination usually takes about 5 to 10 minutes to perform. BSE involves the following:

  • General Visual Exam
    • Look for changes in symmetry, contour, shape, and overall texture of the breasts.
    • Look for dimpling, scaling, redness, sores, and enlarged pores in the skin.
    • Look for discharge, scaling, sores, puckering, and inversion of the nipples.

  • General Touch Exam (Palpation)
    • Feel for unusual lumps, bumps, thickenings, and tender or enlarged lymph nodes in the breasts, under the arms, along the collar bone, and in center of chest between the breasts.

  1. Use a mirror to examine your breasts visually while standing. Note the shape of the breasts and the texture and color of the skin and nipples. Are the breasts symmetrical? Most women have one breast that is slightly larger, rounder, or flatter than the other.
  2. Next, place your hands behind your head to elevate the breasts slightly. Note the contour and texture. Is there pulling of the skin or indentation underneath the skin? Look for changes that are new or unusual.
  3. Now, place your hands on your hips and press into your hips to flex the chest muscle (pectoralis) slightly. Again, note the contour and texture and any unusual changes.
  4. Begin the initial touch (palpation) exam while standing. Always use the same pattern, beginning in the same place and proceeding in the same fashion; either vertically up and down or in circles inward or outward. Powder or lotion can be used to help the fingers move more smoothly over the skin.
  5. After examining the entire area, gently squeezing the nipple between your finger and thumb. Check for any sign of discharge. Then, examine the other breast in the same way.
  6. Repeat the entire palpation portion of the exam while lying down. Use a pillow to elevate the shoulder slightly on the side you are examining.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 02 Sep 2015