Breast Self-Exam: Necessary or Waste of Time?

Breast Cancer, which involves the growth of a malignant tumor in the tissues of the breast, is the most common form of cancer in women. But it can also affect men. In the United States, about 1 out of 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. In 2010, more than 200,000 new cases were diagnosed for invasive breast cancer while over 50,000 new cases emerged for non-invasive or in situ breast cancer.

Breast Self-Exams (BSEs)
Women have always been advised to take formal breast self-exams (BSEs) to detect formation of growths in the breasts as early as possible. For many years, formal BSEs have been a part of breast cancer awareness campaigns as well as breast cancer screenings. However, just recently, some health organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health have stopped giving importance to formal breast self-examination. Some OB/GYNs still advised their patients to continue to do BSEs.

So What Should We Really Do?
New studies say that formal BSEs on a regular basis will not improve your chances of finding breast cancer. In an extensive study that followed 300,000 Chinese women for 12 years, it was found that those who were trained in BSEs technique did not discover breast cancers any more than those who were not trained in self-examination of the breast. Between the two groups, there was almost the same rate of breast cancer deaths, showing that knowledge and training in BSEs didn’t make a difference. There was not much difference in detecting lumps incidentally and through formal BSEs.

According to 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, chances of survival from this cancer are dictated more by the tumor’s biology such as how fast or slow the cancer is and not by “how aggressively you check your breasts”.

– Better Than Nothing
Still, there are doctors who believe that doing self-exams is crucial for early detection particularly for those patients who are not able to afford the costs of mammograms. Marisa C. Weiss, MD, president and founder of says, “BSE is better than nothing”. She still advises her patients to do comprehensive BSEs at least once a month or every other month.

– False Alarm and False Security
However, the disadvantages of this include false alarm and false security. When a woman detects a lump inside her breast which is not actually cancer, she will right away go to the doctor with false alarm. A woman who doesn’t detect any lump but actually has one that cannot be detected by the hand will not go to the doctor having false security that she is cancer free.

The bottom line is doing a formal self-exam is not necessary. A regular mammogram is, as this can find tumors that your hands cannot feel.

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