How to Do a Breast Self-Examination (BSE)

A Step-by-Step Guide

It's important that every woman know how to do a breast self-examination (BSE), as it can help detect changes in your breasts that may be signs of breast cancer, such as lumps, nipple changes, and more. Being familiar with what is normal for you will make it easier to recognize any new developments. Furthermore, knowing what's not normal for anyone can help prompt you to bring such issues to your doctor's attention, should you notice them during your BSE.

Breast tissue extends from under your nipple and areola up toward your armpit, so a BSE should involve these areas. You'll need a mirror that allows you to see both breasts, a pillow for your head and shoulders, and some privacy.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to do a breast self-exam, as well as some things to keep in mind as you perform yours.

Make It Routine

A breast self-exam should only take you 15 minutes once every month. 

If you are pre-menopausal, set a regular time to examine your breasts a few days after your period ends, when hormone levels are relatively stable and breasts are less tender.

If you are already menopausal (have not had a period for a year or more), pick a particular day of the month to do the exam and then repeat your BSE on that day each month.

1

Place Your Hands on Your Hips

self breast exam step 1

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Strip to the waist and stand before a mirror. You will need to see both breasts at the same time. Stand with your hands on your hips and check the overall appearance of your breasts.

Look at the size, shape, and contour. Note changes, if any, in the color or texture of the skin on your breasts as well as on your nipples and areolas.

2

Put Your Arms Over Your Head

self breast exam 2
Verwell / Cindy Chung

Now, raise your arms over your head. See if your breasts move to the same degree and in the same way as each other, and note any differences. Look at the size, shape, and drape, checking for symmetry.

Look up toward your armpits and note if there is any swelling where your lymph nodes are (lower armpit area).

3

Check Your Nipples

Self breast exam part 3

 Verywell / Cindy Chung

Still facing the mirror, lower both arms.

Check the nipples to see if you have any dimples, bumps, or retraction (indentation). With the index and middle fingers of your right hand, gently squeeze the left nipple and pull forward. It should spring back into place, as opposed to sinking back into the breast.

Note whether or not any fluid leaks out. Reverse your hands and check the right nipple in the same way.

Bloody (red) or clear discharge are potentially worrisome, especially if either is coming out of only one nipple. Other colors, such as green, white, or yellow, are usually signs of other conditions, such as an infection or a blocked milk duct.

4

Stand and Stroke

self breast exam part 5

Verywell / Cindy Chung

This is best done in the shower, as wet skin will have the least resistance to the friction of your fingers.

Raise your left arm overhead and use your right-hand fingers to apply gentle pressure to the left breast. 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.

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.

5

Recline and Stroke

self breast exam part 5

Verywell / Cindy Chung

This is best done lying down on a bed with your head and shoulders resting on a pillow.

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

General Tips

  • Mark your calendar to remind yourself to do your BSE regularly. This will help you determine if any changes are possibly due to the time of month, if you are still menstruating.
  • Stay relaxed and breathe normally as you do your BSE.
  • Report any changes or unusual pain to your doctor 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.
  • Remember that a BSE does not replace the need to have an annual clinical exam as well as regular mammograms.
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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. 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

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

Additional Reading

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