Why Women of All Ages Should Do a Monthly Breast Self-Exam
During the month of October, our screens are flooded with bright pink ads, articles, and images, serving as constant reminders to take care of our breast health. But what about the other 11 months of the year, when we need to rely on ourselves to check in with our breasts? “A woman knowing what is new and different in her breasts is vitally important. When you get to know your own body, you can be aware of changes that might mean something important,” says Anne Wallace, a surgical oncologist and director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at UC San Diego Health. For millennial women, the earlier we become aware of the normal state of our breasts, the density of our breast tissue, and our family history, the better. And a monthly breast self-exam is something we can not only hold ourselves accountable for, but our friend groups too. Doctors explain why being proactive about our breast health is just as important as our dental health, heart health, or sexual health in the long run.
Women over 40 (and at age 30 if you’re considered “high risk” for breast cancer based on genetics) are mandated to have mammograms, but it’s smarter for young women to start examining their breast health way sooner, even before puberty is over. Breast self-exams (BSEs), monthly check-ins between you and your breasts, should be done at the same point in your menstrual cycle — some doctors suggest about two weeks after your period, when breasts are least tender — and only need to take five minutes out of your hygiene routine. Ideally, girls as young as fifth grade, which could be when many girls start their menstrual cycles, should get on the bandwagon of performing BSEs. “Breast awareness is more than a self-breast exam, and can start at any age,” says Eleanor Faherty, a general surgeon specializing in breast surgery at the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata, Maryland. “It is more of a comprehensive understanding of your personal risk for breast cancer and an awareness about your own body. You are never too young to know your body and your risk,” she says.
That’s the goal of the Get in Touch Foundation: to educate as many women as possible, of all ages, about diligently keeping up with their breast health, so that they’re aware of any small changes and have the knowledge to speak up when they experience these changes. Their BSE tool, the Daisy Wheel, has been distributed to school health programs around the world to walk young women through the steps of a self-exam, starting by “thinking of your breast as a daisy.” The Daisy Wheel instructs women to thoroughly examine their breast tissue and underarms with the pads of their fingers, both laying down, and then standing up, so they don’t miss any angle. The organization’s mission is to promote this healthy habit from a young age and encourage women to pass it down to their daughters, granddaughters, and beyond.
ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF
Statistically, there have been mixed studies about the direct effectiveness of breast self-exams; some scientists have argued that they can lead to too much anxiety surrounding cancer and too many benign biopsies. “The problem is that often palpable masses end up being benign, but as a breast oncologist, I’ve seen many cancers diagnosed this way [as a result of breast self-exams],” argues Julie Nangia, director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine.
Other healthcare providers and healthcare organizations have taken the position that monthly BSEs might not be necessary and rather suggest a “familiarity” of your breasts on a regular basis (which sounds an awful lot like a self-exam). “This does mean being aware of your breasts, which includes how they feel, if the skin is changing, or there is any new redness or dimpling,” Nangia says. And, Nangia points out, some guidelines for breast self-exams don’t always consider women’s risk factors, like the density of their tissue, and the BRCA mutation, or breast cancer gene (talk to your doctor for more information about testing for breast density or genetic testing if you think you or anyone in your family might be at a higher risk for certain types of cancers). “Someone with strong family history should, in my opinion, still do monthly breast self-exams,” she says.
Different research has supported the effectiveness of performing a monthly check-in with yourself, and then with your healthcare provider if anything at all seems different. One study that surveyed breast cancer survivors of all demographics found that almost 60 percent of survivors detected their cancer in a way other than a mammogram, either through a routine self-exam or by simply noticing the changes in their body through their normal daily grooming habits. “It is important to know a large majority of cancers are discovered by the patients themselves. And even mammograms miss cancers about 13 percent of the time,” Faherty says.
Many healthcare professionals still back this up and are completely on board with instructing women of all ages to regularly have a firm handle on their body and any variations to their health. “Approximately 15 percent of our breast cancer patients are younger than the age of 40, in which a mammogram is not recommended. This simple technique has saved many of our patient’s lives and we are definitely advocates for breast self-exams,” says Heather Steinhauer, a nurse practitioner at Lakeshore Surgical Associates of Louisiana.
Healthy habits, in general, can help prevent breast cancer, doctors say. “It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of breast cancer can be prevented by lifestyle changes. The recommendation is three to five hours of exercise per week, maintaining a normal BMI, consuming less than three alcoholic drinks per week, and breastfeeding your children, if possible,” Nangia says.
BSEs are just one more positive habit to get into. Plus, for those of you and your friends who are under the age of 40, your yearly OB/GYN visit may not be enough of a checkup for your breast tissue, because a lot can change about your body in a year. Women now are more vocal about their bodies than they ever have been able to be before, so now’s the time to speak up about breast health as well. Try setting a monthly reminder in your phone to do your BSE, to make it as much a part of your health routine as taking birth control or taking a multivitamin might be. “Remember, your doctor will typically see you for 15 to 30 minutes, but you have access to your body all the time,” Faherty concludes.
How else do you and your friends keep tabs on each other to stay healthy? Tell us about it @BritandCo.
(Photo via Getty)