A breast self-exam (BSE) is a step-by-step examination of your breasts that you do yourself. It is one tool that can be used to help detect changes in your breasts that might be a sign of cancer. It is a way for you to notice any changes, lumps, or abnormalities in your breasts. It is also a chance for you to become familiar with what is normal for your breasts.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that all women aged 20 years and older talk to their doctor about the benefits, harms, and limitations of breast self-exams. While BSE continues to be widely promoted, there is no evidence showing a decrease in death among women who do these self-exams. Women can choose to do BSE regularly, occasionally, or never. However, even if you never do a step-by-step self exam, you should still be familiar with your body and report any changes to your doctor.
If you and your doctor decide you will do breast self-exams, here is the best way to go about doing it. Do your breast self-exam when your breasts are not swollen or tender. Follow these guidelines from the ACS:
A firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast is normal.
Remember that breast changes are not always due to cancer. But, if you do notice lumps or other abnormalities, call your doctor right away.
If you are unsure as to whether you should do a BSE, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks.
American Cancer Society
Women's Health—Office on Women's Health
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
Canadian Cancer Society
American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer screening: update 2003. CA-A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. May/June 2003.
Breast awareness and self-exam. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/moreinformation/breastcancerearlydetection/breast-cancer-early-detection-acs-recs-bse. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Breast cancer screening concepts. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/breast/healthprofessional/page4. Updated January 8, 2016. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/11/2014