What is a self-breast exam?

A self-breast exam is a routine check you can do to help you stay familiar with the way your breasts normally feel and look. Breast self-exams are not a recommended screening tool for breast cancer, so they should be used with checkups and screenings like mammograms.

While not a screening, a breast self-exam may help notice changes that a doctor should consider, especially in those with a high risk for breast cancer.

What is the importance of a self-breast examination?

A self-breast examination is important because it helps you stay in tune with your breast health and notice any changes. When you know what’s normal for you and your body, you can report something that doesn’t feel right to your doctor.

Many breast health conditions cause changes in your breasts. From normal cyclical changes to benign lumps, most of the time, a change in your breast isn’t caused by cancer. However, getting checked by a healthcare professional can help put your mind at ease.

How to do a self-breast exam

You can perform a breast self-exam each month to check for changes in your breasts. If you have a period, you should do a self-exam right after the end of your cycle. During this time, your breasts are less likely to have symptoms like tenderness or lumpiness that often happen before or during your period. If you don’t have a period, have irregular periods or have gone through menopause, choose a consistent day each month to do your exam.

A monthly self-breast exam should only take a few minutes, and it’s recommended that you examine your breasts in three ways: in the shower, in the mirror, and lying down.

Steps on to complete each exam:

  • In the shower

    Many people find that having soap and water on their hands while in the shower can make it easier to feel their breast tissue. You’ll want to use each hand to feel the breast on the opposite side. Use the pads of your three middle fingers to press into the breast with light, medium and firm pressure. Repeat this in a pattern, like going up and down or in a circular motion out from the nipple, to ensure you cover the whole breast. Also, feel under each armpit and above and below your collarbone.

  • In front of a mirror

    Stand in front of a mirror while undressed and look at each breast. It’s normal for breasts to be slightly different sizes or shapes, so look for changes that aren’t normal. Make sure to look at your nipples to check for changes, too.

    Use different positions to get a better view of your breast from all angles:

    • Stand with your hands on your hips while tightening your chest muscles
    • Bend over forward and tighten your chest muscles
    • Put your hands behind your head and press forward
    • Raise your arms over your head
  • Lying down

    Lie down, place a pillow under one shoulder and place that arm behind your head. Like in the shower, you’ll want to use the pads of your three middle fingers on the opposite hand to feel the entire breast, under the arm and beneath the nipple. Check for discharge by gently squeezing your nipple. When you finish on the first side, switch the pillow to the other side and repeat.

What to look for during a breast self-exam

Here is what you should look for:

  • Any changes to the skin on the breast
  • Changes in shape
  • Changes to the nipples
  • A breast lump
  • Changes in the armpit area

If you notice changes in your breasts during a self-exam, it’s important to inform your doctor. While many changes aren’t a concern, your doctor can work with you on your next steps.

Other types of breast examinations and screenings

While a breast self-exam is a great way to get to know the look and feel of your breasts better, it isn’t considered a screening. When you have a yearly checkup, your healthcare provider can also perform a clinical breast exam to look for any breast health changes.

However, routine mammograms are the best tool to check breast health for those with an average risk of breast cancer. A mammogram can detect breast changes or signs of conditions before you feel them through a breast exam. As a result, this important screening helps catch breast cancer sooner, when it’s often more treatable.

If you have a high risk of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about other screening options. Some people need a breast ultrasound or MRI along with their annual mammogram.


A screening mammogram is recommended every year starting at age 40 for those with an average risk of developing breast cancer. This test uses X-rays to provide images of your breast tissue and look for signs of breast health conditions. Many of our imaging centers offer 3D mammography or tomosynthesis, which provides a more detailed view of the breasts.

Breast ultrasound

A breast ultrasound may be used if you have risk factors for breast cancer or have a spot on a mammogram that needs a closer look. This quick, noninvasive test uses sound waves to create images of your breast. It often helps show whether a lump is fluid-filled or a solid mass.

Breast MRI

An MRI of the breast is another way to check on your breast health, especially if you have a high risk of breast cancer or an imaging test shows an area that needs another look. During an MRI, strong magnets, radio waves and computer software are used to create images of the breast tissue.

Frequently asked questions

  • How often should you do a self-breast exam?

    You should do a self-breast exam monthly at around the same time each month. This will help you compare how your breasts look and feel from month to month.

  • When should you do a self-breast exam?

    If you have a period, perform a self-breast exam as your period ends—around days 3-5 of your cycle. If you don’t have a period or your periods are irregular, choose a consistent day to do your exam each month.

  • Are self-breast exams recommended?

    Self-breast exams aren’t recommended as a breast cancer screening. But they are helpful as a way to get to know your breasts. By being aware of what’s normal for your breasts, you’ll be able to notice changes that might be a sign of a breast condition.