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October 9, 2023

The Power of Self-Care: Your Guide to Regular Breast Self-Exams with Mary McNinch, FNP-C

by Mary McNinch, FNP-BC

As a primary care provider at Avance Care SouthPark, I’ve witnessed the transformative impact of early detection on breast cancer survival rates. This National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m here to emphasize the importance of regular breast self-exams as a simple yet powerful tool in the fight against breast cancer. Join me in this journey of self-care and empowerment as we explore why self-exams matter and how to perform them effectively.

Before we begin, it is important to note that self-exams are not a substitute for mammograms and clinical breast exams. Self-exams have long been recommended, so if you continue to do them, it’s important to know how to perform them correctly.

Why Breast Self-Exams Are Crucial

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide, making it essential to prioritize early detection. Regular breast self-exams play a pivotal role in this, offering several benefits:

Early Detection Saves Lives

The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chances of successful treatment and survival. Self-exams can identify lumps or changes in your breasts before they become advanced tumors.

Empowerment Through Awareness

Self-exams empower individuals to take control of their health. You become more familiar with your body, making it easier to spot any abnormalities.

Complementary to Other Screening Methods

While mammograms and clinical breast exams are important, self-exams are an additional layer of vigilance. They can catch changes between scheduled screenings.

Now, let’s delve into the step-by-step guide on how to perform a breast self-exam properly.

How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam

Step 1: Preparation

Begin your self-exam by gathering the following items:

  • A well-lit room or area.
  • A full-length mirror.
  • A hand mirror.
  • A pillow or towel to place under your right shoulder (for the left breast exam).

Step 2: Visual Inspection

  1. Stand in front of the mirror with your arms relaxed at your sides. Examine your breasts with a critical eye, noting any changes in size, shape, or contour.
  2. Check for any dimpling, puckering, or changes in the skin texture.
  3. Inspect your nipples for any unusual discharge, inversion, or retraction.
  4. Raise your arms above your head and look for the same changes.
  5. Lastly, press your hands on your hips and flex your chest muscles to observe any subtle changes.

Step 3: Manual Examination

  1. Lie down on your back with a pillow or towel under your right shoulder.
  2. Using your left hand, feel your right breast with the flat, three middle fingers. Use varying pressure levels to explore different depths of tissue.
  3. Move your fingers in small circular motions, covering the entire breast, from the collarbone to the top of the abdomen and from the armpit to the cleavage.
  4. Take your time, making sure to examine every inch of your breast tissue.
  5. Repeat the process for your left breast, using your right hand.

Step 4: Axillary Lymph Nodes Examination

While still lying down, gently feel your armpit area with your opposite hand, using the same small circular motions. This helps you check for any swollen or enlarged lymph nodes, which could be a sign of breast cancer.

Step 5: Repeat in Different Positions

Perform the entire examination in both standing and lying positions. Breast tissue can feel different in various positions, so this step ensures thorough coverage.

Step 6: Be Consistent

Make breast self-exams a monthly routine, ideally a few days after your menstrual cycle ends. For post-menopausal women, choose a specific date each month to perform the exam. Consistency is key to early detection.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While regular self-exams are crucial, it’s equally important to know when to consult a healthcare professional:

New Lump or Mass

If you detect a new lump or mass during a self-exam, don’t panic, but do make an appointment with your primary care provider promptly.

Persistent Changes

If you notice any persistent changes in your breast tissue, nipple discharge, skin changes, or pain, consult a healthcare provider for evaluation.

Family History

If you have a family history of breast cancer or carry the BRCA gene mutation, discuss your risk factors with your healthcare provider. You may need more frequent screenings or specialized tests.

Additional Tips for Effective Self-Exams

Use a Consistent Technique: Perform your self-exam using the same pattern and pressure each time. This consistency helps you recognize any subtle changes over time.

Keep a Record: Maintain a record of your monthly self-exams. Note any changes, even if they seem minor. This information can be valuable when discussing your breast health with a healthcare provider.

Consider Technology: If you’re tech-savvy, there are smartphone apps available that can help you track your self-exams and remind you to perform them regularly.

Breast self-exams are a vital part of maintaining your breast health. As a primary care provider at Avance Care SouthPark, I encourage you to make them a monthly habit. By understanding your own body and being proactive in your healthcare, you can increase the chances of detecting breast cancer at its earliest and most treatable stage.

Remember that while self-exams are essential, they are not a replacement for regular mammograms and clinical breast exams, especially if you are in a high-risk category. Talk to your healthcare provider about a screening plan that suits your individual needs.

This National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let’s prioritize our health and the health of our loved ones. By spreading awareness about the importance of regular breast self-exams, we can empower more individuals to take charge of their breast health and ultimately save lives.

Breast cancer may touch the lives of many, but together, we can make a difference by promoting early detection and a commitment to self-care.

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