October is the Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I decided to prepare a blog post with infographics to help women understand how to do a breast self-exam. I was never taught how to do it, I only knew you’re supposed to check yourself. But no one told me how, what to pay attention to. I can blame it on the poor (or basically non-existing) sex education in Poland, but I hope that days when it’s awkward to talk about checking your breasts are gone. I have a history of breast cancer in my family, and I know I’m not the only one.

“There are about 1.38 million new cases and 458 000 deaths from breast cancer each year (IARC Globocan, 2008). Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women worldwide, both in the developed and developing countries. Currently there is not sufficient knowledge on the causes of breast cancer, therefore, early detection of the disease remains the cornerstone of breast cancer control. When breast cancer is detected early, and if adequate diagnosis and treatment are available, there is a good chance that breast cancer can be cured.” – says World Health Organisation.

And self-exam is the easiest, free method of making sure nothing is wrong with your breasts. I prepared the illustrations and the guidelines based on breastcancer.org website, as I wanted to be sure they’re accurate and actually helpful. Yet, since I’m all for showing diverse beauty of women’s bodies and didn’t find women of different ages, shapes and skin colors on the illustrations for self-exam, I did my own ones. At the end there’s a file which puts them all together – I hope you can download it, print it or save it somewhere and do your breast self-exam every month.

Calendar - choose one day of the month

1. Choose one day and stick to it

It’s easier to be systematic when you’ve dedicated one day of the month to do the checkup. Alternatively, you can always choose a specific day of your cycle. The best is to examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day that’s easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.

Check how your breasts look in the mirror

2. Mirror check – overall look

Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight. Remember: most women have breasts that are uneven, have different shapes or size. That’s not a reason to be concerned, that’s normal and beautiful, even though popular culture tends to forget about it. You’re not here to judge the way your boobs look, you’re here to make sure they’re healthy. All breasts are great – small, big, droopy, perky, round or long. But to enjoy them, you need to check if they’re healthy.

Here’s what you should look for:

  • Breasts that are their usual size, shape, and color
  • Breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling

If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention:

  • Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin
  • Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling

Look closely at your nipples and make sure there’s nothing suspicious

3. Mirror check – nipples

Now have a closer look at your nipples – the spot forbidden across all social media channels. Finally you don’t have to blur them, just enjoy seeing the natural wonder. For many women their nipples are erogenous zones, and a research has shown that the sensation from the nipples travels to the same part of the brain as sensations from the vagina, clitoris and cervix. Another reason to look proudly at your nipples. Again: don’t worry if the way they look matches with what society considers pretty. Nipples vary in size and color and that’s totally normal. Hopefully you don’t see anything new, but make sure to notice if:

  • A nipple has changed its position
  • A nipple is inverted (pushed inward instead of sticking out)
  • There are any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood)

Raise your arms and look again in the mirror - do you see any changes?

4. Mirror check – arms raised

Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.

Lie down and check your breasts with a hand

5. Check-up while lying down

This one deserves more work, but hey – at least you’re lying down. You’re going to mow a lawn with your fingertips now, going up and down your breasts. Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.

Use your left hand to feel the right breast and your right hand to feel the left breast. Use a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.

Go into the shower, when your skin is wet it will be easier to spot any lump

6. Shower check-up

Finally, repeat the movements from step 5 when you’re in the shower – your skin will be more slippery and thus allowing you to spot something you might have missed before. Hopefully everything was fine and you can enjoy the shower, maybe add some singing as well.

That’s it!

What if you found something suspicious? First of all don’t panic. It could be many things other than cancer. Smooth, moveable lumps often indicate a cyst. It is not unusual for lumps to appear at certain times of the month, but then disappear, as your body changes with the menstrual cycle (if you are still menstruating). But do check in with your doctor’s offIce to make sure it’s nothing to be worried about.

Remember that the self-exam is only a part of breast cancer prevention. You should have your breasts checked by a doctor every year. For women at average risk, screening mammograms should be performed annually beginning at age 40 to check the breasts for any early signs of breast cancer.

6 steps of breast self-exam

Feel free to download it and print as a poster