Self-breast exams are the most effective way to familiarize yourself with your breast texture and detect abnormalities. But what should you do if, in the midst of your monthly self-exam, you notice a lump?
First, although it's often easier said than done, don't panic.
"Take a deep breath. If you're panicked, call a friend or family member to talk, and then your doctor to make an appointment. It's understandable to jump to conclusions in a situation like this, but remember that not only are breast lumps common, the majority of them are actually benign," says Christine Szarka, MD, oncologist at the Cancer Center of Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health.
These benign breast lumps can be a result of a number of different things, including fluid-filled cysts, non-cancerous tumors, infections or illnesses, or a side effect of medications. But, in order to determine the cause of any changes in your breast tissue, the first step is an appointment with your health care provider.
“Take a deep breath. If you’re panicked, call a friend or family member to talk, and then your doctor to make an appointment.”
Preparing for your appointment
Once you've noticed a lump in your breast, it might feel as though you can't dial the phone to make an appointment quickly enough. But, before you do, make sure you gather a few extra details to share when you call, including:
- Which breast the lump is located in, and where in the breast
- How the lump feels; is it hard? Does it move easily? Is it large or small?
- Where are you during your menstrual cycle? In young women, breast lumps may appear and disappear during your cycle
- Additional symptoms, like breast redness, warmth, itching, or pain
Although an exam will be conducted during your follow-up office visit, answering these questions during a phone call to your health care provider may help better determine the cause and potentially ease your anxiety until your appointment.
During your appointment
At your appointment, your health care provider will ask you about a number of things, including your family and personal health history and location of your breast lump. Often, they can tell a great deal from shape, size, and location of the lump itself. However, they may recommend testing to confirm whether breast abnormalities are benign or require additional diagnostic testing.
"A mammogram or breast ultrasound are two of the best screening tools used to determine the cause of breast abnormalities, and the results are often delivered within hours or a few days of your testing," says Dr. Szarka. "We want to help put women's minds at ease as quickly as possible."
Depending on the results of your testing, your health care provider can work with you on a treatment plan. Even if your breast lump is benign, as most are, follow-up care may still be necessary.
Detecting breast abnormalities
Although the idea of finding a lump in your breast can be frightening, don't let this fear prevent you from conducting monthly self-breast exams.
"Self-breast exams are the most effective way to familiarize yourself with the appearance and texture of your breasts so that you can be aware of any changes that may occur," says Dr. Szarka. "If you are performing self-breast exams on a monthly basis, continue to do so and be aware of any changes to your breast tissue. If not, and you're not sure of how to perform one, ask your OB/GYN or primary care provider at your next appointment."
In addition to self-breast exams, don't skip important annual appointments that can help detect breast abnormalities early, like OB/GYN appointments and mammograms. If you're not sure when your mammography screenings should begin, talk to your health care provider, who can make a recommendation based on your health history.