Because there is debate over its advantages, a breast self-exam is either optional or futile in the estimation of some medical experts.

Symptoms of breast problems vary. Some women don’t have any symptoms at all, and not all abnormalities indicate life-threatening conditions. Nevertheless, it is vitally important for all women to familiarize themselves with how their breasts normally look and feel and keep an eye out for abnormalities that should immediately be brought to their physician’s attention—which is to say a self-exam is very much a useful preventive strategy.

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Women who choose to conduct regular breast self-exams should do them at least once a month and follow these steps:

  • Begin by looking at your breasts in a mirror inside a well-lit room. With your arms at your sides, check for changes in the contour of the breasts and things like dimpling, puckering, swelling, rash, and an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out). Then, with your shoulders straight, place your hands on your hips, press firmly to flex your chest muscles, and turn from side to side so you can examine the outer part of your breasts. Also, check the borders underneath the breasts.
  • Remain standing in front of the mirror and raise your arms and check for the changes listed above as well as signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (i.e. watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).
  • Manually inspect your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and your left hand to feel your right breast. Start by placing a pillow or folded towel under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head (repeat this step on your left before using your right hand to inspect the left breast). Be sure to apply a firm, smooth touch while keeping your fingers flat and together, and use a circular motion. You should cover the entire breast from top to bottom and side to side, from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
  • Feel your breasts for changes while standing or sitting. Many women find that it is easier to feel abnormalities when their skin is wet and slippery with soap and water, and thus prefer to do a self-exam while taking a shower. Remember to move the pads of your fingers in a circular pattern around your entire breast—from the outside to the center—and your armpit area.

Don’t worry if you notice that your breasts aren’t equal in size or shape. Few women have breasts that are completely identical. It is important to know that no breast is typical; what is considered normal for one woman may not be normal for another woman. The way your breasts look and feel can be affected by getting your period, having children, losing or gaining weight, and taking certain medications, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says. Breasts also change as you age. Monthly self-exams should be performed a few days after your period.

The two most common causes of breast lumps, according to the CDC, are fibrocystic breast conditions and cysts. Fibrocystic conditions cause noncancerous changes in the breast that make them lumpy, tender and sore. Cysts are small, fluid-filled sacs that can develop in the breast.

Try not to panic if you discover a lump, but see your doctor as soon as possible about any symptoms that concern you. Your doctor will determine if a formal screening, such as a mammogram, is needed. Although a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine called into question the value of routine mammograms, indicating they often result in overdiagnosis, Dona Hobart, M.D., medical director of Carroll Hospital’s Center for Breast Health, said the screenings are key to catching breast cancer early.

“A lot of people think that a breast cancer diagnosis is a death sentence. That is not the case,” Hobart said. “We’re finding cancers earlier, so screening is still important. Ninety-nine percent of people diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer will survive at least five years.”

And it may very well be an irregularity discovered during a self-exam that leads to a life-saving mammography screening.

This article is sponsored by LifeBridge Health. It was original published on Nov. 1, 2016

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