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How to Check if You Have a Lump on Your Breast

Follow this step-by-step guide to perform a breast self-examination.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer among women, and every year the number of deaths from it increases.

So what’s a gal to do? The best bet is to learn how to perform a breast self-exam accurately and trust your instincts if you think something isn’t right. The self-exam may identify an undetected lump, while a screening can highlight previously undetected issues.

Research on the best way to detect breast cancer early varies. But the low-tech breast self-exam, if performed accurately, can aid in the detection of breast cancer, as do routine mammograms.

Breast self-exam steps

Doctors recommend performing a monthly breast self-exam about five days after your period starts so that your breasts won’t be tender.

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1. Take a good look.

Standing in front of the mirror, scan your breasts for any changes in size, color or shape. Hold your arms by your side, then raise them up and do the same scan.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of the following:
• Rash or swelling
• Bloody discharge coming from the nipples
• Odd dimples, puckering or bulging underneath the skin
• A nipple that has changed position or become retracted
• Lump or a hard nodule
• Veins on one breast that are larger than the other

2. Do a touch test lying down.

Lying down, use your right hand to examine your left breast. Your breast should be as flat as possible on your chest.

Keeping the pads of your fingers together and flat, move in a circular motion in small intervals around the breast, working from top to bottom and from side to side.

Your self-exam should cover the area from your collarbone to the top of your sternum and from your armpit to the middle of your chest. Be intentional and work slowly so that you check the entire breast.

Vary the pressure so that you feel through the various layers of tissue. Use light pressure for the outer layer of tissue, medium pressure for the middle layer and firm pressure to feel the deep tissue.

Then repeat the entire process, using your left hand on your right breast.

3. Do a touch test standing up.

Using the same technique, examine both of your breasts while standing. Some women find this step easier to do in the shower when the skin is wet and easier to manipulate.

It should go without saying that if you find a lump during your self-test, tell your doctor. But don’t panic — a mammogram should tell you more.

“The most important piece of advice for women is to get your screening mammograms,” said Maria Nelson, MD, assistant professor of clinical surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a breast surgeon at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC.

If you or your doctor suspects that you have symptoms of breast cancer, a biopsy will be performed to determine whether there is a malignancy and what further action should be taken.

By Heidi Tyline King

As one of the eight original National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC is one of the preeminent academic medical institutions in the country. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting