October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while everyone knows that early diagnosis is key, many women don’t know the proper way to perform a breast self-exam. This 10 minute exam can be your first step in detecting the warning signs of breast cancer.

You’ll want to check your breasts a few days after your period, when your breasts are less tender. Start with your hands down at your sides. Examine the color and texture of your skin and look at both of your breasts to check for any changes in size or shape.

Repeat with your arms in the air. Then, repeat the steps while pushing down on your hips to tighten your chest muscles. To identify any dimpling of the skin, examine your breasts while bending at your waist, with your hands on your hips.

Next step, you’ll want to lay down, place a pillow under your right shoulder and raise your right arm above or behind your head. Inspect your right breast with the three middle fingers of your left hand, using a small, circular motion in an up-and-down pattern. Apply different amounts of pressure to each area of the breast. Try not to lift your fingers at any time during the exercise. When you’ve finished, lower your right arm and examine your right armpit. Repeat these steps on the left breast using your right hand. Make sure to check all areas from the armpit to the breastbone and from the collarbone to the bra line.

You’re not one and done. Breast exams should be performed monthly, so choose a date for your self-exam and add it to your monthly calendar.

In addition to self-exams there are some warning signs to look out for.

  • Change in size or shape of the breast

  • Swelling in the armpit

  • A lump or abnormal thickening of the breast

  • Unusual discharge from the nipple – bloody or clear

  • Redness of the skin on the breast or nipple

  • Puckering or dimpling of the skin on the breast or nipple

  • Steady pain in the localized area of the breast

  • Change in the nipple – Sore, itchy, dimpled look, burning sensation, ulceration, scaling of the nipple

  • A marble-like hardened area under the skin

If you are 40 to 69 years of age, you should have a mammogram every 1 to 2 years. Your physician may recommend that you start having mammograms earlier if you have had a strong family history of breast cancer. Your physician should also do a clinical breast examination on a yearly basis regardless of age.

Jen Peludat, ARRT RT(R)(M) CN-BI
Breast Cancer Navigator at Halifax Health