Screening and Early Detection

Breast Self-Exam

Breast self-exam (BSE) is a tool that may help you become familiar with the way your breasts normally look and feel. BSE may help you find tumors in the time between your yearly mammogram and/or clinical breast exam. It may also help you see or feel changes in your breasts that should be reported to your health care provider. If you notice any of the warning signs of breast cancer listed below, see your health care provider right away.

• Lump, hard knot or thickening

• Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening

• Change in the size or shape of the breast

• Dimpling or puckering of the skin

• Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple

• Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast

• Nipple discharge that starts suddenly

• New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

Clinical Breast Exam

Clinical breast exams are physical exams done by physicians, nurse practitioners or other trained medical staff. They involve looking at and feeling the breasts and underarm for any changes or abnormalities. The breasts should be checked while you are sitting up and while you are lying down. Clinical breast exams are a part of breast cancer screening and should be thought of as a complement to mammography. Although clinical breast exams are simple tests that should be done as part of a routine medical checkup, not all health care providers are well trained in the technique. It is important to ask for a clinical breast exam if one is not offered. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Foundation recommends a clinical breast exam at least every three years for those ages 20-39, and every year beginning at age 40.


Mammography (ma-MAH-gruh-fee) is a screening tool that uses X-rays to create an image of the breast. These images, called mammograms (MAM-o-grams), are used to find signs of breast cancer such as tumors, small clusters of calcium (microcalcifications) and abnormal changes in the skin. Mammography is the best screening tool used today for breast cancer. It can find cancers at an early stage, when they are small and most responsive to treatment. Mammograms can be done in certified radiology centers, mammography clinics, hospital radiology departments, mobile vans and some physicians’ offices.

Right before the procedure, you will undress from the waist up, so it is a good idea to wear a shirt that you can remove easily. Avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders or lotions on the day of the exam. Ingredients in these products can show up on a mammogram and look like calcifications.

Getting a mammogram takes about 15 minutes. During the procedure, each breast is pressed between two plates, and an X-ray image is made. Two views are taken, one from top to bottom and one from side to side. For some women, the pressure can be uncomfortable, but it only lasts a few seconds. Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) about an hour before the exam may help. If you have concerns, talk to your health care provider about other ways to help ease discomfort (or anxiety) during a mammogram. And, before the exam, let your radiation technologist know you are anxious. This may help her understand your concern and work with you to get good images while being sensitive to your needs. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Foundation recommends a mammogram every year beginning at age 40.

© 2009 Susan G. Komen for the Cure®