How to Do a Breast Self-Examination (BSE)

A Step-by-Step Guide

Regularly examining your breasts is called a breast self-exam (BSE). Performing a BSE may be an
important way to find breast cancer early. About one in eight women in the United States who reach the age of 80 can expect to develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

Unfortunately, research has not proved that BSEs help detect breast cancer. In fact, most women find breast cancer (a new lump) during normal daily activities like bathing or getting dressed. The lack of evidence supporting BSEs has led to some debate in the medical community about whether women should perform routine BSEs or not.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not recommend BSEs as part of breast cancer screening for women with an average risk for breast cancer. They do, however, encourage women to be familiar with how their breasts look and feel. It is essential to report any changes in the appearance, shape, or color of the breasts to a healthcare provider immediately.

In contrast, breastcancer.org believes that BSEs combined with screening mammograms and/or breast MRIs increase the odds of finding breast cancer. In addition, performing a BSE is free, easy, and can be done in the comfort of your home. Therefore, breastcancer.org recommends all women perform routine BSEs for overall breast health.

Despite these differing views, this article will provide a step-by-step guide on performing a breast self-exam and share symptoms that should be reported to a healthcare provider quickly.

Most important, women who want to examine their breasts regularly should not substitute BSEs for screening mammograms.

1

Do a Visual Exam

self breast exam step 1

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Undress to the waist. Stand in front of a mirror large enough to visualize both breasts at the same time. Place your hands on your hips.

Your breasts should be their usual shape, size, and color.

Your breasts should not be dimpling, puckering, or bulging. Your nipples should not be in a different position or unusually inverted. There shouldn't be any redness, soreness, rash, or swelling.

Note any changes from your last BSE

2

Lift Your Arms

self breast exam 2
Verwell / Cindy Chung

Place your hands behind your head. Note how your breasts move. Look for differences between your left breast and your right one. Do they move in the same way? Check for differences in the size, shape, and color of your breasts with your arms raised.

Look directly under your arms (not in the mirror). Check for swelling in your lower armpit, where your lymph nodes are located.

3

Check Your Nipples

Self breast exam part 3

 Verywell / Cindy Chung

Lower your left arm. Check your nipples for dimples, bumps, or retraction, or indentation.

With the index and middle fingers of your right hand, gently squeeze the left nipple, pull it forward, and let go. It should spring back into place rather than slowly sink back into the breast.

Note if any fluid leaks out. A bloody or clear discharge is potentially worrisome, especially if only one nipple is involved.

Discharge that's green, white, or yellow usually is a sign of an infection or a blocked milk duct.

4

Stand and Stroke

self breast exam part 5

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Raise your left arm overhead. With the fingers of your right hand, stroke from the top to the bottom of the breast, moving across from the inside of the breast all the way into your armpit area. Use firm but gentle pressure.

You can also use a circular motion, being sure to cover the entire breast area. Take note of any changes in the texture, color, or size. Switch sides and repeat.

Tip

Do this step in the shower. Your fingers will glide more smoothly over wet skin.

5

Lie Back and Stroke

self breast exam part 5

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Lie down with your left hand behind your head. Use your right hand to stroke your left breast and underarm. Take note of any changes in the texture or size of your breasts. Switch sides and repeat.

Tip

The easiest way to do this step is on your bed with your head and shoulders resting on a pillow.

General Tips

If you decide to do regular BSEs, there are a few things you can do to get the best results:

  • Stay relaxed and breathe normally as you do your BSE.
  • Report any changes or unusual pain to your healthcare provider or nurse practitioner. Keep a log of changes if that helps you remember.
  • Try not to panic if you find a lump. Most breast lumps are benign.

Summary

Although some organizations no longer recommend regular BSEs, this practice can help women become more familiar with their breasts. Performing BSEs in combination with other breast cancer screening tools can lead to early detection and treatment. It’s important to never substitute BSEs for screening mammograms and/or breast MRIs. Any changes in your breasts, nipples, or underarms should be reported to your healthcare provider immediately.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is the best time to do a breast self-exam?

    The best time to do a breast self-exam is a few days after your menstrual cycle when your breasts are no longer swollen, firm, or painful. If you do not menstruate, choose the same day each month to perform your BSE.

  • At what age should you start doing breast self-exams?

    Many organizations recommend that women begin performing breast self-exams at the age of 20. This practice will also help you become familiar with your breast's size, appearance, and color.

  • What does a cancerous lump feel like in a breast self-exam?

    It's normal for breasts to feel lumpy. A breast cancer lump may feel hard, like a small rock or pebble. The lump is often irregularly shaped and painless. Other signs of breast cancer include:

    ·   Skin redness

    ·   Skin Dimpling

    ·   Fluid leaking from your nipple

    ·   A change in the size of your breast

  • How often should you check your breasts?

    Women should do breast self-exams monthly. Having a consistent routine will help you become familiar with how your breasts typically look and feel. Report any changes to your healthcare provider immediately.

Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Breastcancer.org. Breast cancer risk and risk factors.

  2. American Cancer Society. Recommendations for the early detection of breast cancer.

  3. Breastcancer.org. Breast self-exam: How to check for lumps and other breast changes.

  4. Chen, L., Zhou, W.-B., Zhao, Y., Liu, X.-A., Ding, Q., Zha, X.-M., & Wang, S. Bloody nipple discharge is a predictor of breast cancer risk: a meta-analysis. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. (2011) 132(1), 9–14. doi:10.1007/s10549-011-1787-5

  5. Santen RJ. Benign Breast Disease in Women. Endotext [Internet]. Published May 25, 2018.

  6. Susan G. Komen. Warning signs of breast cancer.

Additional Reading
  • Breastcancer.org. Breast Self-Exam. https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam