All women have the option to do regular breast self-examination (BSE). BSE can help you stay in touch with your body and take charge of your own health. BSE may help you find changes in your breasts that could happen between mammograms and/or clinical breast exams by a health professional. Eighty percent of lumps are not cancer, but any changes should be checked out by a health professional.

It is best to check your breasts when they are least painful, usually seven to ten days after the start of your menstrual period. Women who do not have regular periods, who have entered menopause, or who are pregnant can examine their breasts at any time during the month. Breastfeeding mothers should check their breasts after feeding the baby.

If you plan to do breast self-examination, ask your health care provider to teach you. If you are unable to do some of the examination because of physical limitations, do as much as you can. Knowing your breasts might make it easy for you to notice any changes in the way your breasts look or feel.

Guidelines for Breast Cancer Detection

Breast self-exam
     Age 20+
Clinical breast exam
     Age 20+
     Age 40+


A Visual Inspection:

Standing or sitting in front of a mirror as illustrated. In each position look for

If your eyesight is limited, making it difficult for you to do the visual inspection yourself perhaps a close friend, spouse, an attendant or family member could help you with this.

Ask your health care provider to instruct this person in the visual inspection.





If you cannot easily stand, you can do the visual inspection in a seated position, if you have a full length mirror, for example on the back of a door.





Arms relaxed at side



Hands on hips with your thumbs facing forward, push down on your hips      






if you cannot place your hands on your hips, try clasping your hands together in front of you, to tighten your chest muscles




Arms raised above head

  Bending forward



If you are able to use both your hands, use your left hand to palpate the right breast, while holding your right arm up with the elbow bent. Repeat the procedure on the other side side-lying position allows a woman, especially one with large breasts, to most effectively examine the outer half of the breast. A woman with small breasts may need only the flat position.

Side-lying positions:

Lie on the opposite side of the breast of be examined. Place a pillow or rolled up towel under your shoulder blade. Rotate the shoulder back to the flat surface. Use the side-lying position to examine the outer half of your breast.


Flat position:

Lie flat on your back with a pillow or folded towel under the shoulder of the breast to be examined.

Even if you need assistance to get into a lying position, this is better for breast examination than sitting in a chair or wheelchair, or while in the shower.



The exam area is bounded by the line which extends down from the middle of the armpit to just beneath the breast, continues across the underside of the breast to the middle of the breast bone, then moves up and along the collar bone and back to the middle of the armpit. Most breast cancers occur in the upper outer area of the breast (the shaded area).


If you can use only one hand, use that for checking both breasts, and examine the breast on that side as well as you can.

You may need help to check the outside part of the breast on the side of your "good" hand, especially if your breasts are large.




Use the pads of three fingers to examine every inch of your breast tissue. Move your fingers in circles about the size of a dime.



Do not lift your fingers from your breast between palpations. You can use powder or lotion to help your fingers glide from one spot to the next.


If you have difficulty using or feeling with the finger pads of one or both hands, try using the thumb, the palm of your hand or the back of your fingers.


If it is difficult to control one or both hands because of shaking movements, try using the other hand to stabilize the hand examining the breast.



     4. PRESSURE

Use varying levels of pressure for each palpation, from light to deep, to examine the full thickness of your breast tissue. Using deep pressure will not injure the breast, but may normally cause some tenderness.






Use the following search pattern to examine all your breast tissue. Be sure to palpate carefully beneath the nipple. Any incision should also be carefully examined from end to end. Women who have had any breast surgery should still examine the entire area and the incision.

Start in the armpit, proceed downward to the lower boundary Move a finger's width toward the middle and continue palpating upward until you reach the collarbone. Repeat this until you have covered all the breast tissue. Make at least six strips before the nipple, and four strips after the nipple. You may need between 10 and 16 strips to cover all of your breast tissue.

If you get tired easily, break the examination into smaller parts, for example, checking half of one breast up to the nipple, and then taking a break before starting again where you left off.

Schedule your breast self examination for a time of day when you are well rested, and your energy level is at its best.

Axillary Examinations:

Examine the breast tissue that extends into your armpit while your arm is relaxed at your side.

If you can use only one hand, or have trouble reaching across your chest, try to use the hand on the same side to check your armpit.





It is important that you perform breast self examination (BSE) while your instructor watches you to be sure you are doing it correctly Practice your skills until you feel comfortable and confident.


If you are limited in your ability to examine your own breasts, discuss with your health provider, the possibility of having more frequent clinical breast exams.



Every woman should have a personal breast health plan of action
DISCUSS breast cancer detection guidelines with your health professional.
SCHEDULE  your clinical breast examination and mammogram as appropriate for your age.
EXAMINE  your breasts if you wish. Ask your health professional for advice on your method. If you are unable to do all or part of the exam, consider asking a caregiver or family member to help you.
REPORT  any breast changes to your health care provider.


The Seven P's for a Complete BSE

1. Positions 3. Palpation 6. Practice with Feedback
2. Perimeter 4. Pressure 7. Plan of Action
5. Pattern

Special thanks to the following generous funders for making this brochure possible:


The California Endowment

The Susan G. Komen
Breast Cancer Foundation,
San Francisco Bay Area Affiliate

The Women's Foundation