Back to Blog

Breast Cancer Self-Exams: What’s Normal?

Published on Oct. 02, 2021

If you’re a woman, you probably know the importance of mammograms. These screening tests help find breast cancer early — before it causes obvious symptoms. And the earlier it’s found, the better your chance for successful treatment.

Mammograms are a critical tool for women’s health. But not all breast cancers are discovered this way. It’s crucial to be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel. That way, you’re more likely to notice if a change occurs.

Most changes in breast tissue turn out to be something other than cancer. Yet others are indeed warning signs. Here are some things to keep an eye on during a self-examination.

Breast changes to watch for

Contact your primary care provider or family doctor if you find these or any other concerning symptoms:

  • A new mass or lump in your breast.
    This is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Many cancerous breast lumps feel hard and have irregular edges. But some feel soft or round instead.
  • Swelling of part or all of your breast.
    This may occur even without a lump.
  • Skin changes in your breast or nipple.
    The skin may be red, dry, itchy, flaking, or thickened. Or it may be dimpled, sometimes resembling the texture of an orange peel.
  • Breast or nipple pain.
    Many cancerous lumps in the breast are painless. But some breast cancers cause tenderness or pain.
  • Nipple retraction.
    This refers to a nipple that turns inward rather than outward.
  • Nipple discharge.
    This is fluid other than breast milk that comes from the nipple.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
    Breast cancer sometimes spreads to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone, causing swelling there. This may be noticeable even before there’s a breast lump big enough to feel.

When to see your healthcare provider

Remember, it’s not always cancer that causes the symptoms above. For example, normal breast tissue sometimes feels lumpy, and certain medications and infections can cause nipple discharge.

To be on the safe side, always tell your provider promptly about any breast change. If you’re aged 25-30, ask your healthcare provider for a formal assessment to evaluate your breast cancer risk.

And if you’re due for a mammogram, be sure to schedule it — even if you don’t have symptoms. The one-two punch of getting screened and being alert for symptoms is a powerful way to fight breast cancer.

“Early detection is really the best prevention," said Yelena Kier, DO, Oncologist at Munson Healthcare's Cowell Family Cancer Center in Traverse City. "Providing the community with access to screening mammography is our way of being able to detect breast cancer at an early stage and then provide the appropriate care.”

If found early, successful treatment outcomes are much more likely.

Scheduling your mammogram

Combining self-exams with regular screenings can reduce breast cancer deaths by about 30 percent. According to the American Society of Breast Surgeons, women of average risk should begin screening at age 40, regularly.

A 3D mammogram, which combines multiple low-dose x-rays of the breast tissue into a single detailed image, is available at all Munson Healthcare screening locations.