Being an OB/GYN, I always bring up the importance of breast health to my patients. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is a time to do just that. (Consider this a friendly reminder to perform your monthly self-breast exam – more on that below.) As cliché as it might sound, knowledge is our best weapon, especially when it comes to breast health – and all things health even though it can sometimes feel like a daunting subject. I understand this, and my goal is to make it more approachable and easier to understand.

How common is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 million new cases diagnosed in 2020 alone. It is also the fifth leading cause of death from cancer, and the second leading cause of death in women overall. Despite advancements in screening methods and treatment options, breast cancer remains a significant public health concern.

What are the risk factors?

Some risk factors for breast cancer include age, family history of the disease, and genetic mutations. However, approximately 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors. This highlights the importance of regular screenings and early detection in order to improve chances of successful treatment. In addition, it is worth noting that men can also develop breast cancer, although not as often.

A tip to add to your regular monthly self breast exam

It is normal for breast tissue to have a bumpy texture. This can make it a bit challenging to distinguish between what’s ordinary and what might not be. I did learn a valuable technique during my residency at the Mayo Breast Clinic. It may sound simple, but it can make all the difference. Here’s how to do it: Most people learn the traditional circle method of varying pressures around their breast tissue. But normal breasts are usually very bumpy, and it can be hard to differentiate normal bumpiness from abnormal. Instead, start up in the armpit, push with a fair amount of pressure, and drag toward the nipple. Do that all the way around the breast circumferentially when you push and drag along breast tissue; even, normal lumps and bumps will move and blend together. Abnormal won’t. You’ll drag and even hit a pebble or rock and sometimes even have to skip over it, which helps you differentiate normal versus abnormal better.

Never ignore any irregularities. Remember, it’s essential to share your concerns with your healthcare provider. Early detection truly is the key.

Now, let’s glimpse into the ongoing discussion of self-breast exams. Understanding the diverse recommendations and guidelines in this field is vital. Self-breast exams have been a big subject of controversy in recent years. In 2009, the US Preventative Services Task Force discouraged the teaching of self-breast exams. The American Cancer Society also does not endorse self-breast exams for individuals at an average risk of breast cancer. This is because they point to a need for more evidence supporting their effectiveness.

What is breast “Self Awareness”?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), however, takes a different approach. They suggest promoting breast “self-awareness.” This means there are no strict guidelines about the frequency of self-exams or specific techniques. Instead, it implies that individuals should be in tune with the characteristics of their breasts. This way, they can notice any changes or differences.

The statistics are shocking. 40-50% of people aged 50 and over diagnosed with breast cancer detected their cancer through self-exam. 71% of individuals under the age of 50 identified their breast cancer themselves. These figures underscore the importance of self-awareness when it comes to breast health.

Know your body

Being aware of your own body will help you notice when things are not normal. If a monthly self-breast exam is the method that works best for you, please continue with it. For breast exams in a clinical setting, the decision should be mutual between you and your doctor. As OB-GYNs, we often favor an annual breast exam in the office as long as the patient is comfortable with it.

Be aware of your own body, this way you will know if something changes. If the best way for you to do this is a monthly self-breast exam, please continue! Breast exams in the office can be a mutual decision between the doctor and the patient. Above all, stay in tune with your body so you can stay on top of your health.

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