A breast surgeon told us how to actually give yourself a breast self-exam, because it doesn’t have to be scary
While you live with your breasts every day, giving yourself a breast self-exam can seem like a daunting task. Breast self-exams can be critical when it comes to early detection of breast cancer, but you may get bogged down wondering things like: Do I have to move in a circular motion? Are there specific fingers I should use? Is there an order I’m supposed to go in? Thankfully, giving yourself a breast exam doesn’t have to be as complicated as all that, according to breast surgeon Dr. Sangeetha Kolluri of Texas Oncology. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Kolluri spoke to HelloGiggles and demystified this extremely important form of self-care.
“The breasts you got when you were 13 are not the ones you retire with at 85. Your breasts are dynamic and they change throughout the course of your life,” Dr. Kolluri said. She noted that they change during puberty, weight loss and weight gain, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and—of course—your menstrual cycle. “That’s just how it is if you’re a female,” Dr. Kolluri said. “So it’s important to be the expert of your own body. Take ownership of that. This is your body—you got to be familiar with yourself.”
So how do you become familiar with your breasts? Well, that’s where the breast self-exam comes in. However, Dr. Kolluri stated that the medical profession is moving away from the term “exam” and calling it “breast self-awareness.”
“We don’t call it breast self-exam because everyone goes, ‘Oh my god, it’s like an exam.’ It calls back to seventh grade and that test you didn’t study for,” she said. “And that’s absolutely not what we’re here to do. We’re not here to incite fear. Rather we’re here to say, ‘Take some time to familiarize your hands and your eyes with your body.’”
"Basically, you want to use your hands to familiarize yourself with, what is the texture of my breast tissue? On the top, on the bottom, on the sides, under the nipples, towards my cleavage, the whole shebang. What is the texture of my body for me? Because the breast tissue towards the top of the breast is going to be different than the bottom. And it's different toward the cleavage and it's different towards the armpit...Memorize what is the normal shape, size, skin, and the texture, and how do they fit and how does that change when my arms are raised. Take that time and really just memorize it."
She recommended making this breast self-awareness a regular routine that you do in front of the mirror after you shower, since your eyes are also essential to this process.
“Every day when you’re getting out of the shower, take a look at yourself. And with your hands, feel yourself,” Dr. Kolluri said. “Especially as you go through the different phases of your menstrual cycle every month. How does it feel when you just finish your period? When you’re two weeks after your period? Just before your period? During your period? Get the sense of what that feels like. Because you will feel little lumps and bumps everywhere—and that’s normal. That’s your normal breast texture.”
She said that memorizing your normal breast texture is important when it comes to discovering potential issues. “Know your normal breast texture because one day, you might look in the mirror and say, ‘Wait a minute. That mole wasn’t there. Let me just go see Dr. Kolluri.’ she said. “And that’s how we catch stuff.”
Dr. Kolluri also reinforced that breast appearance changes over time, so it’s important to know what’s normal for you. For example, “Some people will have nipples that point out. Some people have nipples that point in naturally. Some people will have one and the other,” she said.
“Personally, I have a very small breast mass that every single time I get a breast exam (I get breast exams too), every doctor says, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ And I tell them, ‘That mass has been there since I was 17 years old. Never changed.’ And then we move on,” she said. “That’s being the expert. I know that that mass has always been there. I remember where it is. I always check it, so that I’m aware of what’s going on with that. Because when you see a doctor, they’re not the expert of your body. You’re the expert of your body.”
Dr. Kolluri said that women should start practicing breast self-awareness as soon as they develop breasts. And when it comes to that dreaded “exam,” she said not to worry about a specific process.
“It’s really less about technique and more just use your hands to feel your breast tissue. It’s not about doing circles. It’s not about a grid,” Dr. Kolluri said. “None of that matters at all. What matters is familiarizing your hands with the normal shape and feel for you.”
But, she added, “Make sure your awareness includes all the way to your midline, where your cleavage is, and all the way out towards your side and including your armpit. And your nipple and areola.”
At the end of the day, breast self-examination is about advocating for your health.
"We want to make it about being empowered," Dr, Kolluri said. "Be that expert and say, 'I'm in charge here. And I'm going to make sure that I know what's going on here. And what's normal for me.'"
Once you establish that baseline, then you will have a better understanding if something has changed in your breast—and that’s when you should see your doctor, since changes can signify a health issue.
However, just because you notice something different about your breasts doesn’t mean you should jump on Google to diagnose yourself or be filled with anxiety. “People [come in] concerned thinking that there’s a mass or feeling like they have breast pain and could that be cancer,” Dr. Kolluri said. “Don’t you worry about trying to diagnose yourself. That’s your doctor’s job. You come to me and say, ‘Something’s different about my breast tissue. Here’s how it was for the past few years. Here’s what I felt last week.’ Then let us go with the next steps.”
And by following this advice, you’ll pass your breast exam with flying colors.