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How to do a Breast Self-Exam

Breast cancer is the number 1 cancer affecting women in South Africa. 1 in 7 women in South Africa will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. It’s very important for us as the nurturing epicentre of our families to take care of ourselves as well as we take care of others.

South African public health services lack a routine mammography surveillance programme due to the cost involved, however CANSA (Cancer Association of South Africa) recommend:

  1. All women between 40-54 years of age get a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) every year

  2. All women aged 55 and above get a mammogram done every second year

Women with a family history of breast cancer (i.e a mother, sister or grandmother that has or has had breast cancer) should be vigilant with their ‘screening’ and make their primary healthcare provider – Doctor or nurse – aware of their family history.





What is ‘screening’?

Screenings are medical tests that doctors use to check for diseases and health conditions before there are any signs or symptoms. Studies have shown that ‘screening has’ decreased death associated with breast cancer by 30-40%.


In this case I’m referring to both mammograms and self-breast examinations.


Why are self-breast examinations important?

By examining your breasts regularly you are able to identify the normal look and feel of your breast, which will guide you to seek help from your healthcare provider when it doesn’t feel or look normal to you.


How should I perform a self-breast examination?


Step 1: Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips.


Here's what you should look for:

  • Breasts that are their usual size, shape, and color

  • Breasts that are evenly shaped without visible swelling

If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor's attention:

  • Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin

  • A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out)

  • Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling

Step 2: Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.


Step 3: While you're at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).


Step 4: Next, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.


Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.


Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can begin at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of the breast. You can also move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows, as if you were mowing a lawn. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you've reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.


Step 5: Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in step 4.



What should I do if I find a lump?

Contact your doctor or visit your nearest clinic and get an examination done by a health professional. There are many causes of non-cancerous breast lumps, including infections and hormonal changes. A mammogram and/or breast ultrasound will be ordered if your doctor is concerned.


Can I prevent getting breast cancer?

There is no definitive way to prevent breast cancer, however there are lifestyle changes one can make to limit the risk.

  1. Limit alcohol intake

  2. Maintain a healthy body weight

  3. Stop smoking

  4. Eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables

  5. Make sure that if you are taking hormone replacement therapy during your perimenopausal period you have discussed the benefits and risks with your doctor and have disclosed your family and personal cancer history.

For more information or if you aren’t sure how to go about getting help with a breast examination by a nurse/doctor, contact CANSA on 0800 22 6622 or Whatsapp 072 197 9305 English and Afrikaans | 071 867 3530 Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and Siswati.




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