Ask an Expert: Breast self-examinations

Q. I’m a young woman who tries to do breast self exams (BSE's) every month. But I often put them off because they make me so nervous. I just heard that not all health care organizations recommend monthly BSE's. What do you say?

Answer from the expert staff of breast cancer research at the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center at Providence Portland Medical Center: In 2001, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care published the results of a study that compared medical outcomes between women who were taught how to perform BSE's and women who weren’t.

They found that women who were taught BSE had two or three times the number of surgical biopsies, but they didn’t find any more cancers than women who were not. Their conclusion was that regular BSE's led to increased anxiety and unecessary testing, surgery, and scarring from biopsies. They recommended that BSE's no longer be taught to women. Additional, recent studies have reached the same conclusion.

In May 2003, the American Cancer Society released an updated BSE recommendation stating that monthly BSE's should be considered optional, and do not play a significant role in breast cancer detection.

There has never been data to support a strong recommendation of regular breast self-examination. It’s just one of those things that people think is a good idea. And I still think it is a good idea for women to check their breasts, because if they don’t, they’ll never notice potentially serious changes. Rather than a monthly exam, I’d recommend that women consistently pay attention when they’re bathing to how their breasts look and feel, and contact their physician if they notice any changes.

Also, remember that self exams are only one component of breast cancer screening. Annual breast exams by a physician and regular mammography beginning at age 40 are also crucial steps.

Last updated: June 2003

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