How My Alarming Experience Encouraged Me to Learn How to Properly Conduct a Self-Breast Exam

Breast Exam
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To put it frankly, I have small boobs—and I’m not ashamed. They’re never in my way, I don’t get severe back pains, and my hard-earned money goes to shoes instead of expensive bras to hold them in place. That said, I never imagined I would ever find myself in the waiting room of a breast center—especially at 21 years old.

I was never one to conduct self-breast exams. I would wait for my annual gynecologist appointment and just pray that he wouldn’t come across anything suspicious as he awkwardly examined me while we chatted about “what’s new in my life.” And though he found nothing to worry about during that visit last summer, something in my head told me to conduct a self-breast exam while lying on my couch one night just two weeks after that appointment.

There it was. A hard, large lump located on my left AA. How could my gynecologist have missed it? To put it into visual perspective, it was bigger than a grape and as I pressed it with my two fingers, it moved around my breast vigorously. I immediately went to Google, where "breast cancer" continually popped up after typing in my symptoms (fail). I took a deep breath and made an immediate appointment with a breast specialist. To my surprise, I received good news that day. It was a benign lump called a fibroadenoma that is found often in girls my age. Phew.

My alarming experience prompted my desire to learn how to properly conduct a breast exam on my own every month. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve checked in with Fahimeh Sasan, Doctor of Osteopathy and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to learn the dos and don’ts when it comes to this important subject.

Believe it or not, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) does not recommend low-risk women to conduct self-breast exams simply because studies have shown that it increases anxiety rather than outcomes—I was a victim of this myself (thanks, Google). Instead, the recommendation is to have an annual breast exam with your doctor and start with annual mammograms at the age of 40.

However, performing a self-breast exam isn’t totally out of the question—we know how tempting it can be. When it comes to doing it yourself, Sasan says to always conduct one once a month, during the same time every month. “Don’t do it during your period,” she tells InStyle. “The best time is to do it is within the first seven days after your period has ended.” Always avoid the time preceding or during your period because the breasts will naturally feel tender.

Sasan shared helpful tips to perform this specific procedure. First, take it to the shower as your wet soapy hands will make it easier to glide along the breast. You can also conduct a breast exam while lying down because it's possible to feel different things than when you're standing. “Do it like a pinwheel,” Sasan recommends. “Take two fingers and start at the nipple, and make small circular motions with pressure around the breast until you get to the outside.” It’s a good idea to go all the way out to the armpit because outer breast tissue can extend that far.

“The idea behind a self-breast exam is getting used to how your breasts feel because no two women have the same breast feeling,” Sasan tells InStyle. “Since you will be doing it every month, you will have done it enough to know exactly how your breasts should feel. Once you’ve established what your normal is, conduct one every month to see if your normal has changed.” That said, make sure you are always checking both sides because your own two breasts won’t always be the same size, or have the same feeling or shape.

When performing a self-breast exam, keep in mind that you’re simply looking for something that feels different. My scary experience encouraged me to check my breasts once a month to do just that. That said, if you do feel something out of the ordinary like I did, immediately bring it to your doctor’s attention, rather than trying to self-diagnose through an Internet search.

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