Reviewed by

Dr. Joke Bulthé – gynaecoloog aan het UZ Gent


How To Do a Breast Self Examination

Reviewed by

Dr. Joke Bulthé – gynaecoloog aan het UZ Gent

They might be perky or saggy. Small or large. They probably bounce faithfully along with your busy routine and with the exception of when you’re having sex or breastfeeding, they don’t get much attention. We're talking about your breasts. Your two friends through thick and thin that we all too often forget. 

Even though you might be one that takes care of everyone around you, doing a breast self examination isn’t something most women make a habit of. But it’s important. Our research shows that many women take their breasts for granted, and some even ignore breast pain. But every day, seven women die from breast cancer in Belgium and recognizing the symptoms of breast cancer at an early stage can save lives. So today we ask you the question: when was the last time you felt your breasts?

Why check your breasts? 

Here are some facts about breast cancer in Belgium: 

  • Despite good care, seven women lose the battle against breast cancer every day.
  • One in nine women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives.
  • Breast cancer is the number one cause of death among European women.
  • 80% of all breast cancers are hormone sensitive.
  • 80% of women in Belgium do not know the nine warning signs for breast cancer (see below).
  • 30% have never examined their own breasts, and of those who do, 40% don't know if they are doing it properly.

The figures surrounding breast cancer do not lie. And yet we check our breasts far too little.

When and How to Examine Your Breasts

Your breasts change throughout your life and cycle. Sometimes they are a bit harder, sometimes a bit softer, sometimes a bit fuller, sometimes a bit softer. But your breasts are unique and you should know them best. This is the only way you know when something is off. Changes to your breasts can be harmless, but they can also be a sign of breast cancer so it’s important to be aware. 

  • Check your breasts about a week after your period.
  • Pay attention to your skin, nipples and the shape of your breasts (view the 9 warning signs below).
  • Visit a doctor if you see or feel any change in your breast.

When you check your breasts, we recommend that you do this 10 days after your period. Why? Your breasts continuously change throughout your cycle. Sometimes even from week to week! By regularly self-examining your breasts, you get to know them well. And this is important, because it allows you to recognize abnormalities faster, allowing you to detect possible breast cancer at an early stage. If you check your breasts every month at the same time in your cycle, you can detect abnormalities faster. We wrote a whole article about it: This is how your breasts change during your cycle.

What to pay attention to when conducting self-examination: Think Pink's 9 alarm signals

Women over 50 are at greater risk of breast cancer. But even if you are younger, it is advisable to examine your breasts regularly. There are no definitive guidelines on this. The French-speaking 'Ligue contre le cancer' recommends women who do not belong to a risk category to be examined once a year by their gynecologist or GP.

The better you know your breasts and how they feel, the better you will recognize if something is different than normal.

Examine your breasts in three steps:

  1. Firmly touch your right breast with the three fingers of your left hand. Start on the outside (near your armpit) and turn in small circles. Work from left to right and from top to bottom.
  2. Feel under your arm and armpit for bulges or hard areas.
  3. Press your nipple to see if any fluid comes out.

What are you paying attention to? Think Pink's 9 alarm signals

1. You feel a lump, swelling, or unusual pain in your breast

Not all lumps are malignant and not always a sign that something is wrong. However, unusual and new lumps, swellings or strange pain are sufficient reasons for an extra check-up. It is therefore important to know your breasts well If you know how they feel and look, you will also notice more quickly when changes occur.

2. You see a lump on your breast

Many women think of a visible lump as breast cancer, but it is possible it could be something else, for example a connective tissue lump or a fat body. Have your doctor evaluate the lump for size, shape, hardness, and mobility.

3. You feel a lump under your armpit

Also keep an eye on your armpits and the area above the collarbone. The glands in your armpit can swell due to inflammation. If you feel an unusual lump and you are over fifty, see your doctor.

→ What does a lump feel like? A lump can feel like a marble. It is harder and stiffer than the rest. But it may also feel like a long swelling or a thickened disc.

4. You have a dent in your chest

Dimples or dents in the breasts are more noticeable when you raise your hands. Just like lumps and swellings, they can be harmless, but sometimes also malignant. Have an expert look at it.

5. Your breast shape has changed

It is completely normal that your breasts do not have the same shape. But there is a reason to visit a doctor if a breast suddenly changes shape or size.

6. Your nipple has suddenly inverted

Nipples come in all shapes and sizes. Here too, have it checked if an unusual change occurs, for example if you have recently developed a flat nipple or if your nipple seems to be pulling inwards.

7. You have fluid loss from the nipple

Loss of fluid from the nipple without recent pregnancy or breastfeeding is a symptom you should pay attention to. Maybe it is an inflammation, but it is better to be on the safe side and visit a doctor.

8. Your skin is uneven and feels hard 

If the skin of your breasts looks flaky and red, it is advisable to visit a doctor.

9. The skin has changed color

Red, blue, or green spots: If your breasts look an odd color, it could be a sign of a poorly fitting bra. If it also occurs with a good bra, have a doctor look at it.

→ Are you breastfeeding and do you suddenly have a red, warm spot, a red line, tender joints and do you feel like you have the flu? Then you may have a breast infection. Treat the breast. Read what to do here. Visit a doctor if you are concerned.

Other reasons for breast pain: hormones and bras

We at Guud Woman speak every day with women who suffer from sore breasts. In fact, only 20% never suffer from sore breasts. Many of the women we speak to often experience headaches, bloating and cramps too. They struggle through their cycle every month and think this is just something they have to live with. 

But sore breasts and other complaints can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance or underlying health problems. Are your breasts bothering you? Chat with us and we will happily see how we can help you. Have you noticed changes in your breasts or do you recognize one of the 9 signals? Please contact your doctor immediately.

CurveCatch, a Flemish start-up that helps women find the perfect-fitting bra with a home-try-on service, also often speaks to women who suffer from breast pain. About 80% of women wear bras that do not fit properly, which can of course also cause breast pain.

Risk of breast cancer, what can you do to reduce the risk?

When we talk about the risk of breast cancer, the risks can be divided into two groups: avoidable risks and unavoidable risks. Let's take a look at them:

Risks of breast cancer that are within your control

It is always wise to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Not only because you feel fitter and because you are worth it, but also because you can reduce the risk of many diseases by making healthy lifestyle choices. 

The risk of breast cancer increases if you are overweight or obese, after menopause, if you drink (a lot) or smoke, take the pill, do not exercise enough or if you follow a certain hormone replacement therapy (HRT) (a therapy to reduce the reduce symptoms of menopause)

Risks of breast cancer that are beyond your control

There are many factors that pose a risk of breast cancer that you really have no control over. For example, your age, family history, x-rays or radiotherapy, your type of breast tissue, whether you have children or not, whether you have breastfed or not, and from what age and until when you menstruate.

Changes in your cycle due to breast cancer treatment

We just said that your period can have an effect on breast cancer. For example, the age at which you have your first period and when you enter menopause influences your risk of breast cancer.

But treatment with chemotherapy or hormone therapy (or anti-hormonal therapy) can also influence the regularity of your periods or how much you flow. In some cases you may no longer have your period at all.

Hormone therapy is a treatment against the female hormones estrogen and progesterone and is often used for a hormone-sensitive tumor. A hormone-sensitive tumor grows under the influence of these hormones. With this treatment you will receive medication that reduces the production of these hormones.

You may notice typical changes that can be traced back to changes in your hormones:

  • Loss of your period
  • Changes in libido
  • Feelings of depression

Fertility and breast cancer

A major concern for many women with breast cancer is whether treatment will affect their ability to become pregnant in the future.

Women who have breast cancer and are in the reproductive phase (still fertile) often receive hormone therapy (or anti-hormonal therapy). The treatment reduces the chance that the cancer will come back.

The disadvantage of this treatment is that it affects your menstrual cycle and causes your body to go into premature menopause, because your body will no longer produce estrogen and progesterone.

Consult with a specialized doctor before starting chemotherapy or hormone therapy to see what your options are to preserve your fertility. This allows you to determine whether it is possible to freeze embryos or eggs before starting treatment. In addition, a specialist can also discuss other options for starting or expanding a family, such as the use of donor eggs or adoption.

Breast cancer is a terrible disease, but fortunately the survival rates continue to increase. An important part is self-examination and early detection. So check your breasts regularly. Link your self-examination to a fixed date or put it as a reminder in your phone - this way you can be sure you won't forget.

Do you have other questions about breast pain, self-examination or do you want to know what you can do to improve your cycle? Chat with us. Our experts are ready to help you. 

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