A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Breast self-exams in 3 easy steps

Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams once a month.

“It’s an easy thing to do,” said Dr. Stacey Sperlingas, a Marshfield Clinic family medicine physician. “Breast self-exams are a good screening tool to use in conjunction with mammograms.”

Why do breast self-exams?

Mammograms are the most reliable way to detect breast cancer and you should follow your doctor’s screening recommendations. However, some breast cancers are found by self-exam rather than by mammography.

Self-exams help you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can let your health care provider know about any changes as soon as you notice them.

How to perform a self-exam

Breast self-exams don’t take much time, and you only have to do them once a month.

Perform the exam midway through your menstrual cycle (about a week after your period ends), when your breasts are less likely to be swollen and tender. If you no longer have periods, choose a day of the month you can remember to perform an exam and make a note in your calendar or cellphone.


VISUAL: In front of a mirror.

  • Look at your breasts with your arms down at your sides and raised overhead.
  • Look for changes in your breasts and nipples.
  • Look at their size, shape and color.

TOUCH: In the shower.

  • Raise the arm of the breast you're checking overhead.
  • Use the pads of your fingers to check your entire breast including your armpit.
  • Move in small, circular motions from the outside of your breast toward the center.
  • Use full range of pressure - light, medium and firm.

TOUCH: Lying down.

  • Put a pillow under one shoulder and raise that arm overhead.
  • Check your entire breast and armpit using the same motion described in Step 2.
  • Gently squeeze your nipple to check for discharge.


  • Discoloration
  • Redness or rash
  • Swelling
  • Nipple discharge
  • Dimpled or puckered skin
  • Nipples that have changed position
  • Nipples that have become inverted
  • Hard areas or lumps that feel like a pebble or frozen pea

What if I notice a problem?

“If you notice breast changes, you should be worried enough to let your doctor know, but you don’t need to lose sleep,” Sperlingas said.

Breast changes are a normal result of aging and changing hormone levels. Most changes aren’t cancer, but don’t wait until your next doctor’s appointment or mammogram to get them checked.

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