OncoLog: MD Anderson's report to physicians about advances in cancer care and research.

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From OncoLog, January 2011, Vol. 56, No. 1

Breast Awareness
Guidelines recommend breast awareness rather than formal self-exams

“I don’t do breast self-exams because I don’t know how.”

That’s what many doctors used to hear from women. But updated guidelines are assuring women that they will know if something is wrong with their breasts and enabling women to be involved in their own breast health. Today, doctors believe that instead of conducting a standardized self-examination, women should practice breast awareness by being familiar with how their breasts look and feel and reporting any changes to their doctor immediately.

Awareness versus self-exam

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center no longer recommends that women follow a formal technique in checking their breasts for suspicious lumps or changes—a practice called a breast self-exam. Research has not shown a benefit for women in finding breast lumps by following a formal technique.

In fact, many breast cancer patients at MD Anderson found a breast lump or other symptom of breast cancer when they were going about everyday activities, such as showering or dressing.

Indeed, breast awareness does not require special training—women just need to know their own bodies. MD Anderson recommends that women be familiar with the look and feel of their breasts—and that there’s no right or wrong way to do that. Touching can range from informal touching, such as in the shower, to conscious touching to feel for any changes.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know if my breast feels different?

It’s common to wonder whether you’d recognize a breast change. Generally, if you can’t tell whether you have a change in your breast, there probably hasn’t been a change.

For example, while bathing you would notice a new lump that had arisen on your calf. If you had played soccer that day, you would probably assume you had been kicked. But if there were no logical reason for the lump to be there or if the lump lasted more than a few days, you would tell your doctor immediately. The same is true for breast awareness: if something is strange or new and doesn’t have a good explanation, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

What kind of changes should I look for?

Many changes aren’t cancer, but here are some changes to look for. If you notice any of these changes—or even a breast change not on this list—and it lasts for more than 2 weeks, tell your doctor promptly:

  • Lump or mass in your breast
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit
  • Changes in breast size, shape, skin texture, or color
  • Skin redness
  • Dimpling or puckering
  • Nipple changes or discharge
  • Scaliness
  • Nipple pulling to one side or a change in direction

Breast Awareness Online Resources

MD Anderson Breast Self Awareness Patient Education Brochure
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
American Cancer Society

For more information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.

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