FRIDAY, Nov. 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- There are five steps women should follow to ensure a monthly breast self-exam is effective, an expert says.

"The most important thing about a breast self-examination is to know your breasts," said Dr. Laura Kruper, a breast cancer surgeon at City of Hope in Duarte, Calif. "Many women detect breast cancers or breast lumps themselves and that can be the beginning of an important conversation with your doctor."

"Start by looking for differences between your breasts. Good breast self-exams should be concerned with both the look and feel of breasts. The look element should be performed while either standing or sitting in front of a mirror, with your clothes removed," she added in a City of Hope news release.

"Examine both breasts and look for: visible lumps; any unusual differences between the two breasts; dimpling or indentations in the breast tissue; redness, scaliness, or other changes to the skin or nipples that appear abnormal; changes to your nipples, for example a nipple that is newly inverted or pulling in.

Next, put your hands on your hips and pull your elbows forward while looking for the same breast changes from the first step. Keep your hands on your hips and slowly swivel from side to side. Then lift your arms above your head to see if there's any puckering or dimpling of the skin when you elevate them.

"When you raise your arms, the mass, if there is one, stays there and the skin pulls in," Kruper said.

The next step is to feel your breasts while lying down with a pillow propping up your head and your arm resting behind it. With the opposite hand, use your first three fingers ( index, middle and ring fingers) to press down around the breast and surrounding area in circular motions.

"Using three fingers, rather than just one, keeps you from mistaking normal breast tissue for lumps. Increase the pressure you use with each pass around the breasts to ensure you are not just feeling superficial tissue," Kruper said.

After examining your breasts, check the areas around them. Use circular motions and increase pressure as you move from the collarbone to the sternum and down below the breast. Then move up to the area under your arm and check for any swelling in the lymph nodes.

"What you're looking for is something that stands out -- something that feels like a pea, or a marble or a walnut," Kruper said. "Something that definitely feels different than the surrounding breast tissue."

Perform your breast self-exam at the same time each month, she added.

More information

The National Breast Cancer Foundation has more about breast self-exam.