For years, breast self-exams (BSEs) were a staple of breast cancer screening and a crucial element in breast cancer awareness campaigns. But lately, many weighty organizationsincluding the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Healthhave stopped emphasizing the importance of them. Nevertheless, some OB/GYNs are still telling women to do a formal BSE. So should you bother?
Research suggests that doing a formal, in-depth BSE on a regular basis wont actually improve your chances of beating breast cancer. In the largest and best-conducted study, which followed nearly 300,000 Chinese women over 12 years, those who were trained in BSE technique did not find any more breast cancers than those who were not. There was also a virtually identical number of breast-cancer deaths in the two groups. "The China study showed that it doesnt make any difference if you find a tumor by doing a regular, formal BSE instead of finding it incidentallylike when you roll over in bed," says Susan Love, MD, clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and president of the Dr. Susan Love Breast Cancer Foundation. "Your chances of survival are dictated by the biology of the tumorhow fast- or slow-moving the cancer isand not by how aggressively you check your breasts."
Doing a formal self-exam isnt necessary. That said, you do need to pay attention to any changes you feel or see in your breasts, such as unusual lumps, swelling, irritation, dimpling, or pain in the breast or nipple. Also crucial: Dont skip your regular mammogram, which can find tumors that your hands cant feel.