How to Do a Breast Self-Exam

Breast cancer self-exams can help women detect changes that could signal cancer

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Anyssa Garza, PharmD

A quick and easy self-check could make a big difference in women's health.

That's why adult women are often told to perform a breast self-exam at least once a month. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, around 40 percent of breast cancer cases were initially found through a breast self-exam. Considering that nearly 12 percent of women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer at some point, according to, the potential to identify breast cancer before it spreads through a self-exam becomes even more important.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, women should perform a breast cancer self-exam around the same time of the month each month. The timing becomes important because breast tissue is affected by the normal hormonal fluctuations in a woman’s body. Performing a self-exam at the same time each month can help women differentiate between a normal change and something that feels different.

While self-exams are useful tools, they aren't the only measure experts say women should take to stay vigilant about breast cancer. Mammograms — X-ray images of the breasts — can detect breast cancer long before it would have been detectable in a self-exam. Speak to your doctor about how often you should be screened for breast cancer.

They may not be perfect, but breast cancer self-exams can help women stay on top of their health by watching for any changes and bringing them to a doctor's attention. Early breast cancer detection has been linked to higher chances of survival.

Here's how to conduct a breast self-exam:

Step 1

Stand in front of a mirror with your shoulders straight and your hands placed firmly on your hips. According to, you should check your breasts for changes in color, shape and size. Bring any changes — like dimpling or bulging of the skin, nipple changes, redness, rash, swelling and soreness — to your doctor's attention.

Step 2

Bring your hands together straight above your head. In this position, check your breasts for the same changes. Also look for any fluid discharge from the nipples.

Step 3

Lie down and put a pillow beneath your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head, recommends the National Breast Cancer Foundation. With the first few fingers of your left hand, make small, circular motions around your right breast and armpit, feeling for lumps. Make sure to use a firm and smooth touch. Keep your fingers flat and together. Repeat for the left breast.

Step 4

Perform another exam while standing in the shower. Check for any lumps or other changes by pressing your breasts and armpits with the pads of your fingers. If you notice any changes, tell your doctor as soon as you can, but don't panic. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, around 8 out of 10 lumps on the breasts are actually not cancerous.

Review Date: 
October 16, 2015