Jefferson University Hospitals

Frequently Asked Questions

Are breast changes normal?

Yes. Every woman's breasts change during the course of her menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breast-feeding and menopause. Sometimes, however, breast changes such as a change in the size, appearance or feel of your breasts indicates a more serious problem, one requiring a physician's attention.

What kind of breast problems can occur?

The most common breast problems are the presence of benign (non-cancerous) cysts in the breast. Cysts are small, fluid-filled lumps, ranging in size from very tiny to the size of a golf ball. Fibrocystic change, which most often affects women between 25 and 50 years old, may cause your breasts to feel tender and heavy. Medical research links fibrocystic breasts to changes in diet. For some women, caffeine stimulates the formation of cysts. Cutting down on the consumption of coffee, tea, cola beverages and chocolate may help to improve breast symptoms.

Approximately one in eight women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. The word cancer refers to a group of diseases, all involving the rapid growth of abnormal cells somewhere in the body. Fortunately, breast cancer can be successfully treated when detected early. Yearly physical examinations, monthly breast self-examinations and mammography, if your doctor recommends it, greatly increase your chance to detect breast cancer early.

What if I found a lump?

A breast lump is the first noticeable sign of a breast problem. A lump in the breast can be detected by both you and your doctor by doing a physical exam. The earlier you find a lump, the more successful the treatment of the disease. Because of this, you should get into the habit of performing routine breast self-examination. Women practicing regular breast self-exams discover many of their own breast lumps. During your regular visit, your gynecologist or gynecological nurse practitioner (gyn np) will also examine your breasts for any abnormalities.

How do I perform a breast self-examination?

Make a commitment to do a self-breast examination routinely, every month. Do the exam on the same day each month so that you won't forget. The best time to perform a breast self-exam is 7-14 days after your menstrual period, when your breasts are no longer swollen or tender. If you do not get a menstrual period, then pick a time every month to exam your breasts. Regular self-breast exams will familiarize you with the way your breasts normally look and feel. The following guidelines can be used to help learn how to do a breast exam:

1. Sit or stand in front of a mirror, and examine the way your breasts look. Has either of your breasts changed in appearance or in size or shape? Look for puckering or dimpling of the breast skin, and retraction (pushing in) of your nipples. Then, lift your arms and place your hands on your head, and check the appearance of your breasts again. Finally, press your hands firmly against your hips and inspect your breasts a third time.

2. Now, lie down. Flatten your right breast by placing a pillow under your right shoulder. Place your right arm behind your head.

3. Use the sensitive finger pads (where your fingerprints are, not the tips) of the middle three fingers on your left hand. When doing a breast exam, feel for lumps using a circular, rubbing motion in small, dime-sized circles without lifting the fingers. Powder, oil or lotion can be applied to the breast to make it easier for the fingers to glide over the surface and feel changes to your breast.

4. Press firmly enough to feel different breast tissues, using three different pressures. First, light pressure to just move the skin without jostling the tissue beneath; then, medium pressure pressing midway into the tissue; and finally, deep pressure to probe more deeply down to the ribs or to the point just short of discomfort.

5. Completely feel all of the breast and chest area up under your armpit, up to the collarbone and all the way over to your shoulder and down to your bra line.

6. Use the same pattern to feel every part of the breast tissue. Choose the method easiest for you:

Self-Breast Exam Illustration

Circles - Beginning at the outer edge of your breast, move your fingers slowly around the breast in a circle. Move around the breast in smaller and smaller circles, gradually working toward the nipple. Don't forget to check the underarm and upper chest areas too.

Lines - Start in the underarm area and move your fingers downward little by little until they are below the breast. Then, move your fingers slightly toward the middle and slowly move back up. Go up and down until you cover the whole area.

Wedges - Starting at the outer edge of the breast, move your fingers toward the nipple and back to the edge. Check your whole breast, covering one small wedge-shaped section at a time. Be sure to check the underarm area and the upper chest when doing a breast exam. After you have completed a breast self-examination of your right breast, examine your left breast using the same method, and your right hand with a pillow under your left shoulder. You may want to examine your breasts or do an extra exam while showering. It's easy to slide soapy hands over your skin and feel anything unusual. 

What should I look for when doing a breast self-examination?

Many breasts feel naturally lumpy. This is no cause for alarm. Pay attention to anything that seems new or unusual - new lumps, puckering, dimpling, a thickening or hardening under the skin, a retraction of the nipple, or any other change in the way your breasts or nipples look. Discharge or bleeding from your nipple also signals a problem which needs to be evaluated by a physician.

What if I find something abnormal when doing my self-examination?

If anything abnormal is found after performing your self breast examination, or you notice a change in your breasts, see your doctor immediately to evaluate. If you do not have cancer, you will feel reassured. If you do have cancer, the earlier your doctor can begin treating it, the better your chances for cure.

Your doctor will perform a thorough breast examination, similar to the one you do at home. Based on that exam, and on your medical history, your doctor may recommend further tests to determine the cause of your breast abnormalities found during the exam. These tests include mammography, breast ultrasound, breast MRI or a biopsy.