A Guide to Breast Self-Exams

A breast self-exam may seem somewhat daunting, but it’s an important practice to add to your self-care repertoire. Not only is it an effective method for detecting any potentially harmful changes to your breast health, it’s also a great way to get more deeply connected to your body and divine femininity. And it’s much easier than it seems!

Breast self-exams are recommended for every woman of all ages to do at least once a month. The goal is to catch any lumps, bumps, or other changes in breast tissue, all of which may be signs of breast cancer. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in North America, with 1 in 8 women developing it over the course of their lifetimes, so prevention and awareness are critical.

The most common and well-known procedure for the early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer is the mammography exam. Mammograms involve compacting the breast for a series of X-rays to show the inside of the breast. By the age of 40, women are encouraged to schedule annual mammograms as their cancer screening process. We are made to believe that these procedures will save us from getting breast cancer, that they’re safe and effective, and that they’re an important part of our health care routine. However, mammograms can be a very harsh procedure for such a sensitive and intimate area. The breast is forcefully compacted and exposed to ionizing radiation, which impacts the tissues at the cellular level and can contribute to the development of breast cancer. In fact, mammograms can expose your body to doses of radiation that are 1,000 times greater than that from a chest X-ray, which in itself poses a known cancer risk.

Although mammograms do have their time and place, adopting and keeping with a holistic approach can be less abrasive and more effective in the prevention of breast cancer. Detection and diagnosis are important, but even more so is the prevention of ailments in the first place. When an abnormality or lump is felt in the tissue, consider thermography as a primary screening option rather than mammography. Thermography uses infrared imaging to provide physiological data about a lesion. Often times, these abnormalities are benign fibroids which can be resolved with changes to the diet, breast massage, application of certain oils, and herbal remedies. Opting for thermography when you detect changes in your breast tissue reduces your risk of exposure to high doses of cancer-promoting radiation.

A breast self-exam is an easy practice that every woman can learn to do for herself. By connecting with our bodies on a regular basis, we become familiar with how our breasts feel normally and how they fluctuate throughout our menstrual cycle, and we can easily keep track of any changes or abnormalities that arise.

The menstrual cycle coincides with changes in hormones. These hormonal fluctuations may also cause changes in the breast tissue, including in size, shape, and feelings of minor lumps and bumps. Swelling of the tissues usually begins to decrease when menstruation begins. The best time to do a breast self-exam is after your period begins – around day 5-7 of your cycle is ideal (with day 1 being the day that your period begins). Testing at this time in your cycle will ensure the breast exam is more accurate to your true breast tissue.

How to perform a breast self-exam:

1. Choose a comfortable position, really anywhere you like – in front of the mirror, in the shower, lying in bed, or after a meditation or stretching.

2. Get comfortable and remove your shirt and bra.

3. Lift one arm above your head, out to the side, and in a neutral position.

4. Using a firm but smooth touch, move the pads of your fingers in a circular motion, as well as up and down and side to side.

5. Cover the whole breast area from the armpit to the nipple, to the breastbone, as well as below and above the breast.

6. Notice what you’re feeling – the breasts are made of fat, glands, and connective tissue, so you’ll feel some tissue and lymph nodes, which is normal.

7. As you repeat this every week or so, you’ll begin to notice how your breasts feel normally and how they change throughout your cycle, and you’ll be able to detect any abnormalities.

8. If you do notice something that you’re concerned about, don’t panic! Keep an eye on it for any changes (write it down and keep track, noting if it changes with your cycle, gets smaller, goes away, or grows) or make an appointment with your doctor to get a second opinion.

Additional tips for breast health:

1. Eat a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet

This is essential for the health and vitality of our bodies and minds. Nurture your body with healing foods – think organic, leafy greens, colorful veggies, fruits, whole grains, complex carbs, good fats, high-quality protein sources, and plenty of filtered water. Keeping our bodies in balance will promote homeostasis and inhibit the development of illness and disease.

2. Ditch the bra!

Wearing a bra for up to 12 hours a day increases our risk of breast cancer by five times. This is due to the blockage of circulation that is needed for lymphatic flow and to minimize toxins from accumulating in the fat cells in the breasts. Going totally bra-free may not be for everyone, but minimizing the length of time you keep your bra on is a great place to start. Take it off as soon as you get home, dry brush or massage the area, and get some movement in. Choose bralettes and looser-fitting bra tops instead of the underwire to allow for more circulation and breathing room.

3. Take care of your mind and emotions.

Lifestyle and mental well-being are other important factors in the prevention of disease and illness of any kind. Breast cancer, and problems of the breast have been connected to emotional experiences relating to constantly putting others first, the suppression of and failure to express anger and emotions, unresolved emotional loss, and feelings of resentment. Adopting self-care practices such as meditation, journaling, and yoga is a great way to let out inner suppressed emotions, connect with our bodies, and prevent sickness from accumulating within us.