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Are Self Breast Exams Still Advised?

You’ve probably heard the phrase: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” This certainly applies to loading the dishwasher or cleaning out your car but it may not be the best advice when it comes to preventative breast exams.

Wait, what?

If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Since the 1970s, medical experts have advised women to thoroughly palpate her breasts each month to check for unusual lumps or changes. The self-exam should take 30-45 minutes; half of the exam lying down and the other half in the shower.

You might be surprised to learn that cancer specialists, gynecologists, and even the Susan G. Komen advocacy group no longer recommend self breast exams. Dr. Audrey Roberts from our Women’s Center in McKay Dee Hospital explains “Studies have shown that breast self exams result in increased anxiety and a greater incidence of invasive procedures (diagnostic biopsies) without showing any better detection of breast cancer than with a routine clinical exam combined with interval mammography.”

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So what’s the standard for early detection?

One caveat here: Medical experts advise that a certain percentage of women should continue to perform self-breast exams. Women who are at a high risk of developing cancer such as those with a family history or women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene should continue performing routine exams.

For adult women who are not high-risk, Dr. Roberts advocates for “breast self-awareness”.  This purposefully vague terminology entails being aware of the general look and feel of your breasts. “Be comfortable with your breasts appearance and report any structural or physical changes to your physician as soon as you can” she says. Breast changes could include:

  • Lumps, hard knots, or bumps
  • Rashes, itchy sensation, or a scaly sore
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • Asymmetry, dimpling, or other changes to the breast’s size or shape
  • New pain in one spot that does not go away

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What else can I do to prevent breast cancer?

Delve into your family history of breast and ovarian cancers. If one or more relatives have had breast cancer, talk to your doctor about genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. Women with these gene mutations have a 60% chance of developing breast cancer by age 70.

If you do carry BRCA1 or BRCA2, your screening tests will begin earlier and your physician will change how he or she manages your health. For example, screening mammograms start 15 years sooner for BRCA carriers and mammograms take place every 6 months (opposed to yearly).

Exploring your family history of hereditary cancers and getting regular mammograms if you’re over age 40 are two of the most effective ways to detect cancer early.

Need to schedule your screening mammogram? Call us at (801) 475-3830.

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