Getting a yearly mammogram is extremely important if you’re over 40. But you typically only have a mammogram once per year, and it’s important to check in between those yearly appointments. It’s easy to check for breast cancer at home; here’s the best way to do it.

Breast cancer self check

Self-exams are extremely important. | iStock.com/Tharakorn

Why should you check for breast cancer at home?

Most doctors don’t recommend yearly mammograms until you’re at least 40. It can be younger if you have a history of the disease, but it’s typically not recommended before that. However, it is possible for breast cancer to strike at any time, so you should start checking yourself in your early 20s to make sure you catch any sign of the disease.

Mammograms are only yearly, and it’s obviously possible for cancer to develop shortly after a yearly breast exam. If you’re checking yourself regularly at home, you’ll come across any unfamiliar lumps or signs of the disease that otherwise wouldn’t be caught until the following year. The earlier you detect it, the better chance you have of beating it.

Give yourself a breast exam at least once per month

Once each month, familiarize yourself with how your breasts feel. This way, the slightest abnormality will be easier for you to detect. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 40% of breast cancers are actually detected by women who notice an abnormality themselves rather than a doctor discovering one during a mammography. There are three different ways you can give yourself an exam, and each of them focuses on something different. (You should do all three.)

In a mirror

Put your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips, and look at your breasts in the mirror. Notice the way your breasts look. Pay attention to their size, shape, and color. Has anything changed since the last time you checked them? (If this is your first time, note exactly what they look like for future reference.) Is there any noticeable swelling in one or both breasts, or a color change you’re not used to? Taking a mental note of your breasts’ general appearance is the best way to start your breast exam. Raise your arms, too, and look for any noticeable swelling or bumps around the armpits. Examine the nipples as well for any fluid leaking, which may be a sign of cancer.

In the shower

You can also do this in front of a mirror, but it’s perfectly fine to be somewhere else, such as in the shower, for this next part. With the pads of your fingers, move around your breast in a circular motion and look for any distinct bumps you have not noticed before. Also, examine the armpits thoroughly for any bumps that seem abnormal. Some bumps around the breast area are normal, and most are benign, which is why it’s important to become familiar with your specific breasts to note where there may be benign bumps. But any bump should be examined by your doctor.

Lying down

It’s important to feel your breasts while lying down, too, because the breast tissue spreads out. Feel your breasts in a circular motion, about the size of a quarter, and examine the entire breast area from your collarbone down to the top of your abdomen. Use firm pressure to make sure you’re catching any possible lumps, and examine the armpits again as well.

Examining your breasts in three separate positions ensures that you’re being as thorough as possible. If you notice any abnormality, consult your doctor right away.

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