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OB Gyn Associates of Iowa City and Coralville

Breast self awareness and breast health for women of all ages

Breast Health and Awareness

Breast exams performed by a healthcare professional or by women themselves have been a cornerstone of breast health recommendations for many years. However, many experts (such as the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and others) now say that women should focus primarily on breast self-awareness rather than performing a breast self-examination (BSE). 

Why aren’t breast self-exams (BSEs) recommended anymore?

Simply put, evidence does not show that regular breast self-exams help reduce deaths from breast cancer. Research has shown that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found earlier, are less likely to need aggressive treatments, and are more likely to be cured.

Still, doctors believe there is value in women being familiar with their own breasts, to understand what's normal and promptly report changes. Therefore, the current best practice is regular mammograms for breast cancer screenings, combined with breast self-awareness in between mammogram appointments.

What is Breast Self-Awareness?

Rather than following a certain method or schedule, breast self-awareness is knowing what's normal for your breasts. Your breasts change throughout the day, month, and different stages of your life. If you know what is normal for your breasts–how they normally look and feel–you can more easily and quickly notice any changes. This is called breast self-awareness.

If you see any changes, report them to your healthcare provider right away.

Does this mean I don’t need to have mammograms?

No! A breast self-exam isn't a substitute for a screening mammogram. Becoming familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts can supplement breast cancer screening, but can't replace it. Mammograms are used to screen for breast cancer. Breast self-awareness allows you to notice changes in between mammogram appointments. 

What if I think I’m at higher risk of breast cancer?

In general, women at higher risk for breast cancer include women with a family history of breast cancer in a close relative, women with an inherited gene mutation, and women with a personal history of breast cancer. The best way to determine if you are at a higher risk for breast cancer is to talk with your doctor about your family history and your medical history. Your doctor can help you come up with a screening schedule to fit your needs.

What are some signs of a potential problem? 

  • A lump
  • Nipple discharge, especially a bloody discharge
  • Swelling
  • Redness, thickening, or dimpling of the skin
  • Changes in size or shape
  • Skin irritation
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit
  • Nipple pain or redness

What do I do if I notice a change in my breasts?

It’s normal to be upset if you find a problem. Contact your provider right away, but remember that most breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous). If you have any questions, your health care provider is always just a phone call away.