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How to practice breast self-awareness all year long

Don't panic if you don't remember the exact steps to monthly self-exam. We've got the scoop on the most current, research-tested way to protect yourself.
Breast Cancer Awareness_3
(Photo: We Heart It)

It’s October. You just saw six Facebook posts about Breast Cancer Awareness Month fundraisers, walked by a Duane Reade window splattered in pink, and it seems like everyone is yelling at you to check your breasts.

This year, Keep A Breast launched the #CheckYourSelfie campaign, Boarding for Breast Cancer launched a new app that reminds women to do self-exams monthly, and SoulCycle is giving out shower hangers with breast self-exam instructions to its riders. And throughout you hear the stat that 40 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer find the lump themselves.

So you go home, head into the bathroom, lift up your top, and panic. Was it clockwise or counter-clockwise? Two fingers or three? And what the heck are you supposed to be feeling?

Take a deep breath. It turns out the research on breast self-exam has progressed and top medical institutions and physicians have a new, easier prescription for you: breast self-awareness. “The seven-step self breast exam has gone by the wayside,” says Deborah Lindner, MD, the chief medical officer at Bright Pink, and a clinical instructor at Northwestern University Medical Center. “The problem is that nobody went on to define what breast self-awareness meant. We aren’t telling people ‘don’t do a breast exam’ or ‘never touch your breasts.’ But it doesn’t have to be done every month—it’s more about having awareness of your body.”

Why the change? Studies like this one have shown self-exam does not reduce mortality from breast cancer.

In response to this and other research, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force issued a recommendation against self-exams, and many leading organizations—like the American college of OBGYN, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Bright Pink, and Susan G. Komen—switched to preaching breast self-awareness.

Giuliana Rancic and Bright Pink’s founder Lindsay Avner. (Photo:

So what do you need to do in order to be breast self aware? Here’s Dr. Lindner’s four-step prescription for protecting yourself this month—and long after all of the pink has faded away.

1. Know your family history. If there’s a lot of breast cancer in you’re family, then you’re likely at higher risk for the disease, explains Dr. Lindner (who had a preventive mastectomy after inheriting a BRCA1 mutation). “You should know who was diagnosed at what age and on what side of the family. If you don’t know your family history, you don’t know if you should be getting MRIs every year, for example,” she says. Bright Pink has an Assess Your Risk tool on its site, so you can figure out where you stand.

2. Know your normal. “If you don’t know the normal architecture of your breast, you won’t know when to speak up if something has changed,” Dr. Lindner says. Take a look and feel ASAP, and get to know them well. “Another part of knowing what’s normal is knowing where your breast tissue is—it goes all the way up to your collar bone.”

3. Know what the signs and symptoms are. You obviously need to understand what a cancer would feel like, Dr. Lindner says. “Typical cancers feel like a really hard, firm nodule—it feels like a frozen pea. You could also have nipple discharge, but we’re most worried about a lump—and if that lump hasn’t gone away with your cycle,” she says. “If you’ve felt your normal breast, then when you do feel them again, you know what you’re looking for.”

4. Know the risk factors. “There are things you can do lifestyle-wise, like maintaining a healthy body weight, lowering fat intake, increasing exercise, and limiting alcohol intake. They are well-known to reduce the risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Lindner says.

It doesn’t sound like that much work, right? “We need to teach women to be advocates for themselves, know the signs of cancer, know their family history, and get them into the doctor’s office every year,” says Dr. Linder. “If we do that, I think we’d be in a way better place when it comes to cancer.” —Molly Gallagher

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