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When To Get A Mammogram + What To Look For During Self-Exams, From MDs

Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
A Step-By-Step Guide To Self Breast Exams & What To Look For, From MDs

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in American women (and the rates are even higher among Black women). This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer. While that number is staggering, the death rates from breast cancer have dropped 41% from 1989 to 2018, due to early detection—making breast exams a lifesaving tool for some. Here's everything you need to know about mammograms and self breast exams, according to doctors.

When to get your first breast exam. 

According to the United States Preventive Task Force Services, it's recommended that a person with an average risk for breast cancer start screening at 50 years old. (Find our comprehensive timeline for different health exams here.) 

However, "we will recommend earlier screening if [you] have a previous personal history of cancer, direct family history of breast cancer, genetic mutation that increases their risk of breast cancer (BRCA gene), or a history of chest radiation in the past," says Navya Mysore, M.D., physician and National Program Medical Director at One Medical.  

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What about self breast exams?

Whether you're getting annual mammograms, or you're under 50 and don't meet the criteria for early testing, it's still a good idea to perform self breast exams. "I recommend doing this once or twice a month to take note of any changes or abnormalities," Mysore suggests.  

Not sure how? Here's Mysore's step-by-step guide: 

  1. Start by looking at your breasts in the mirror and noting any major changes in size, shape, skin texture, dimpling, rash, or inverted nipples. 
  2. Look for the same things but this time with your arms lifted. (There could be changes when your arms are in a different position.)
  3. Lie down. Using the opposite arm for the opposite breast, feel around the breast tissue with two fingers in a circular motion. Move up and down the breast until you have covered the entire surface area.
  4. Do this same motion standing up to feel the breast tissue in a different position.  

"If you suspect anything out of the ordinary or believe you might be at risk, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider," she suggests.  

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What to look for in self breast exams.  

Self breast exams can be tricky, as the breast tissue won't always feel exactly the same (especially during different phases of your menstrual cycle). However, if you do them monthly, Mysore says you will become familiar with your own breasts and better be able to detect when something feels out of the ordinary. 

Generally what you're feeling for, according to OB/GYN Wendie Trubow, M.D., is a pebble or frozen pea-like lump. "It's usually on the harder side, and either mobile (moves around) or can also be fixed in place," she once told mbg.  

"Your breast tissue can definitely feel more 'lumpy' right before your period, and this is hormonally driven," she notes. To avoid unnecessary panic, "the best thing to do is examine your breasts a few days after your period ends when you are least tender, lumpy, and bumpy," OB/GYN Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, M.D., once recommended. 

If you do happen to check them during your period and are concerned about what you find, Mysore recommends reaching out to your primary care provider.

Breast cancer prevention methods.

Getting regular mammograms and doing at-home checks is an important step in detecting breast cancer (and hopefully detecting it early), so you can get necessary treatments. On top of that, "there are many lifestyle choices you can make to not only reduce risk associated with breast cancer but other illnesses as well," Mysore says. 

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Exercising regularly with both cardio and strength training, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies, limiting processed foods and alcohol intake, and not smoking, are just a few methods Mysore encourages. "If you are on birth control, I would speak to your primary care provider to make sure it's safe, depending on what your personal risk with breast cancer is," she adds. 

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Bottom line.

Getting to know your boobs is important—everything from your boob type to the way your tissue feels and your personal and family history with breast cancer can help you detect when something is off. If you're concerned, don't hesitate to reach out to your doctor. "Better to be proactive than reactive," Mysore says.

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