Women can take their breast health into their own hands-literally-by performing regular self-breast exams (SBE). While you cannot detect all abnormalities this way, many women do find cancer tumors before their doctor does. Caught early, breast cancer is highly treatable.

Why do SBEs?

Every woman's breasts are different. Some women have more lumpy or fibrous breast tissue and for them, this is perfectly normal. The most important reason to examine your own breasts is to become aware of what they feel like and look like. Once you're familiar with the landscape of your own breast, you will recognize if something changes. A change in your breast does not automatically indicate cancer (and often doesn't); however, it should prompt you to see your physician for further evaluation. SBEs should be part of a combined breast cancer screening approach that includes clinical exams and annual mammograms after age 40.

How to do a SBE

Doctors recommend you examine your breasts monthly beginning at age 20. Do your SBE about a week after your period ends. This minimizes any potential hormonal influences on your breast tissue due to your menstrual cycle.

There are several techniques for performing a SBE although they all include a both a visual and tactile inspection. Here's the method the Prevent Cancer Foundation suggests.

  1. Lie with a pillow under your shoulder and the same arm behind your head. Use the pads of your three middle fingers on the opposite hand to feel for lumps in your breast using overlapping, dime-sized circular motions.

  2. Apply three levels of pressure: light to feel tissue closest to the skin, medium for deeper tissue and firm pressure to feel tissue closest to the ribs and chest. Go through each level of pressure before moving to the next spot.

  3. Move around the breast in an up-and-down pattern from the underarm, moving across the breast to the middle of your chest bone. Check your breast from top to bottom, from your collarbone to your ribs following this same pattern. This pattern is effective one for covering the entire breast without missing any tissue.

  4. Standing in front of a mirror, look at your breasts in four positions: arms at your side, arms over your head, hands pressing firmly on your hips, and bent forward with hands on your hips. Look for any changes in size, shape, contour, dimpling, rash, puckering of the nipple or skin or nipple discharge.

Once you do a SBE a few times, it will become natural and comfortable.