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Are Self Breast Exams Harmful?
What Every Woman Needs to Know


Today breast cancer is undeniably one of the most pressing health issues facing women in the United States. Statistics show that one in seven U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, women in the U.S. are more at risk of developing breast cancer than any other cancer.

breast cancer prevention

Are breast self-exams causing women to undergo unnecessary biopsies?

With breast cancer rates on the rise, it would seem all the more important to follow the self-care instructions given to women by doctors for decades: perform regular breast self-examinations to aid in early detection.

Flying in the face of the established beliefs about self-care and early detection, an evaluation of recent research on breast cancer has led some scientists to conclude that breast self-examinations may actually do more harm than good. According to a study in the most recent issue of The Cochrane Library, "regular breast self-examination does not reduce death from breast cancer and may actually have a harmful effect by increasing the number of biopsies performed for benign disease."

The researchers, Doctors Jan Peters Kosters and Peter C. Gotzsche from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, analyzed data from clinical trials of more than 388,000 women and reported in Reuters Health that "promotion of breast self-examination as a single screening method cannot be recommended."

In fact, the doctors explained, "This is particularly true because there is good evidence of harm and there are also considerable costs related to general screening."

Breast Self-Exams: Do They Cause More Harm Than Good?

There is established, widespread promotion of breast self-examination as a method to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages and thus reduce the risk that the disease will progress undetected into a more advanced stage. However, Kosters and Gotzsche claim that the self-exam method is not based in proof of effectiveness, and that, in fact, "the possible benefits and harms remain unclear."

Kosters and Gotzsche's report claims that breast self-exams do not necessarily contribute to a decrease in the onset of terminal breast cancer. Breast cancer deaths turned out to be comparable regardless of whether or not women performed breast self-exams.

The concern is that women who perform such exams may be more likely to undergo a biopsy for a detected lump, which often turn out to be harmless. The biopsy, however, is an invasive, not to mention costly, procedure that therefore was completely unnecessary.

breast awareness

Many women are replacing breast self-exams with "breast awareness" -- a general knowledge of how YOUR breasts feel at different times of your life.

Should You Continue Your Breast Self-Exams?

The general conclusion among experts turns out to be that breast self-exams are optional. But what is not optional is "breast awareness," or simply being familiar with the normal feel of your breasts.

Your breasts, for instance, can normally vary in sensitivity and texture at different times in your menstrual cycle and different life stages. By examining your breasts regularly in a way that's comfortable for you, you'll be able to spot anything out of the ordinary right away.

Should you decide to do a breast self-exam, The Mayo Clinic offers several methods to do so. Here are their tips for a breast self-exam using a "clock pattern":

  • Visualize your breast as the face of a clock.

  • Place your left hand behind your head and examine your left breast with your right hand.

  • Place your right hand at 12 o'clock -- at the very top of your breast.

  • Press the pads of your three middle fingers firmly on your breast in a slight circling, massaging motion.

  • Move your hand down to 1 o'clock, then 2 o'clock, continuing until you return to 12 o'clock.

  • Continue in the same pattern, moving your hand in smaller circles toward your nipple.

  • Check the tissue under the nipple and look for discharge.

  • Check the tissue under your armpit and surrounding your breast.

  • Place your right hand behind your head and repeat the examination on your right breast using your left hand.

How to Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer:

Early detection remains a very important factor in the fight against breast cancer, and prevention tactics are equally important. There are many natural ways for you to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Exercise regularly. Research shows that exercise will reduce your risk of developing cancer.

  • Manage your weight. Obesity is linked to the development of cancer, and a healthy weight will reduce your risk.

  • Get 15-20 minutes of sunlight per day. Sunlight contains vitamin D3, which helps fight cancer cells and decreases the spread of breast cancer. Studies show that vitamin D3 "encourages healthy breast cell growth while making cells more resistant to toxins." In fact, it's been shown that safely exposing your skin to the sun may reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Cut back stress levels: Studies show that decreased stress levels, as well as a positive, happy state of mind, work to counteract the development of cancer.

  • Limit yourself to one alcohol drink per day for women, and two for men. Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer.

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in nutrients:

  • Eat citrus fruits, such as grapefruits, oranges, and tangerines:
    These fruits contain monoterpenes, which cleanse your body of carcinogens and fight the spread of breast cancer cells. Oranges and grapefruits, as well as apples, also contain calcium d-glucarate, an antioxidant that may reduce breast cancer by as much as 70 percent!

  • Eat plenty of vegetables:
    When crushed or cooked, cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, radishes, and rutabaga, release indole-3-carbinol, which prevents tumor growth and inhibits the spread of cancer cells. They also contain calcium d-glucarate, an antioxidant that may reduce breast cancer by as much as 70 percent. Also, tomatoes, especially cooked, contain lycopene, an antioxidant that prevents the development and spread of breast cancer and fights harmful free radicals.

  • Eat whole grains and flaxseed:
    They contain lignan, which "inhibits estrogen production, which may stop the growth of breast cancer." Lignan is found in flaxseed, pumpkin, sunflower and poppy seeds, whole grains (rye, oats, barley), fruits (especially berries) and vegetables.

  • Drink green tea:
    Studies show that drinking green tea or green tea extract may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. This is because it contains epigallocatechin-3 gallate (EGCG), which inhibits the development and growth of breast cancer cells.

Recommended Reading:

Eight Key Nutrients to Help Prevent Breast Cancer -- and Where to Find Them

Half of All Breast Cancers are Tied to Pollution


Reuters Health, "Breast self-exams do not cut breast cancer deaths," July 16, 2008

The Cochrane Library, "Regular self-examination or clinical examination for early detection of breast cancer," Jan Peter Kösters and Peter C Gøtzsche, 2008 Breast Self-Exams

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