While it can be worrying to notice a lump in one of your breasts, bear in mind that most lumps probably aren’t cancerous tumours. Breast lumps frequently turn out to be cysts, fluid-filled sacs that sometimes form within the breast tissue. In most cases, a breast cyst will be benign and won’t necessarily require treatment.
A breast self-exam is a helpful way for those assigned female at birth to monitor the condition of their breasts on a regular basis. Breast self-exams are physical inspections of the breasts using the eyes and hands. While they won’t allow you to differentiate cancerous lumps from benign ones by themselves, performing them regularly can help you determine what’s normal for your body and what changes to report to your doctor.
This article will walk you through how to perform a breast self-exam, how cysts might look or feel different from tumours, and when to seek a professional screening:
How to Do a Breast Self-Exam
If you menstruate, the best time to do a breast self-exam is a few days after your period ends. To perform a breast exam, follow the steps below:
- Remove your top and stand in front of a mirror that gives you a clear view of your upper body. Straighten your shoulders and let your arms hang relaxed by your sides. Look at your breasts in the mirror, paying special attention to their shape, size, and colour. Also, take note of any swelling or changes in your nipples, including the presence of discharge.
- Raise your arms above your head and look over your breasts a second time.
- Lie down on your back with your right arm over your head. Check your right breast with your left hand, using a firm touch with the pads of your fingers rather than the tips. Use small, circular motions to feel for any abnormalities in the breast tissue. Start this manual inspection at the nipple and spiral gradually outwards.
- Examine your entire breast with your hand, going from top to bottom and from the centre of your body to the sides. Start just below your collarbone and move all the way down to your upper abdomen. Do the same moving from the middle of your chest to your armpit. Lastly, squeeze your nipple gently to check for any discharge.
- Return to an upright position, either sitting or standing. Lift your arm back over your head and massage your breast all over once more. You can follow the same pattern you used while lying down to ensure that you cover your entire breast area.
- Once you finish with your right breast, move to your left breast and repeat the examination process.
Try to examine your breasts monthly, at around the same time each month. Some people prefer to perform self-exams in the shower, as it’s sometimes easier to feel for any changes in the breast tissue when the skin is wet.
Differentiating Breast Cysts and Tumors
As previously mentioned, breast cysts are round or oval-shaped sacs that form when there’s a buildup of fluid in your breasts. Though their exact cause is unclear, breast cysts are fairly common, particularly in people assigned female at birth who are in their 40s and onwards. They vary widely in size, from being fairly large (macrocysts) to so tiny they’re impossible to detect without breast imaging (microcysts). They’ll usually feel like soft, smooth masses under your skin that you can move easily with your fingers. While cysts may sometimes be painful or tender to touch, most are benign.
A tumour of the breast is a solid mass made up of abnormal cells. Tumours can be benign, which means that these abnormal cells will grow but not spread to other parts of your body. On the other hand, cancerous tumours can spread, form new tumours, and thus damage healthy tissue and organs. A tumour will usually be a hard lump that doesn’t move easily when you touch it and doesn’t change throughout your menstrual cycle. Significant changes to the size or shape of your breasts or nipples may also indicate the presence of a tumour.
Though there are often telltale signs that will help you tell a breast cyst from a tumour, the differences can be difficult to perceive in some cases. There will also always be exceptions to these common norms, as all bodies are different.
When to See Your Doctor about Breast Changes
Early-stage breast cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms and needs to be detected through an ultrasound or other breast imaging procedure. Some warning signs to look out for, however, include the following:
- A hard, unmoving lump in the breast
- Swelling, soreness, or redness
- Changes to the skin of the breast, such as thickening, dimpling, or flaking
- Nipple discharge or inversion, which refers to the nipple being sunken into the breast rather than pointing outwards
- Swelling in the lymph nodes around the collarbone or under the arm
While these changes are not guaranteed signs of breast cancer, they do warrant calling your doctor and scheduling a breast screening. As breast cancer is easiest to treat when caught early, it will benefit you to get the necessary tests as soon as possible.
At the end of the day, you can’t substitute routine breast self-exams for regular medical checkups and breast cancer screenings. However, many doctors still recommend familiarising yourself with the normal look and feel of your breasts through breast self-exams. This will make it easier for you to notice any changes or abnormalities that may require a professional diagnosis.