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More About Breast Cancer Self Exams and Lab Tests

Medically reviewed by Jezreel Esguerra, MD · General Practitioner


Written by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza · Updated Dec 19, 2022

More About Breast Cancer Self Exams and Lab Tests

Breast cancer, though a very serious disease, is one of the cancers that is completely curable, especially if detected early. This type of cancer can be detected through observing its key symptoms. Diagnosis is then further confirmed via lab tests for breast cancer. 

Breast Cancer Statistics in the Philippines

In the Philippines, breast cancer ranks as the top cancer among women. In 2018, 25,000 new breast cancers were recorded, accounting for a little over 30% of new cancer cases in women. Breast cancer affects mostly women, though men are also susceptible to this particular cancer. But its occurrence in men is rare. 

As a highly treatable disease, it is crucial that breast cancer be detected as early as possible. It can be done with the help of self-exams and lab tests for breast cancer.  

In a study, it was found that if the cancer was contained only on the breast, a woman’s 5-year survival rate was 99%. But as some symptoms only appear in later stages, it is encouraged that young women become familiar with their breasts and undergo self-exams and lab tests for breast cancer.

What is a Breast Self-Exam?

The self-exam is a simple method that women can use to check their breasts for any abnormalities, such as lumps and dimpling, suspicious discharge, or any physical changes of the breast tissue and nipple. 

While lumps and the like may be of benign cause, familiarizing yourself with your breasts can help you detect any signs that may be related to breast cancer. 

According to Johns Hopkins Medical, 40% of diagnosed breast cancer cases were detected by women during a breast self exam. 

How Do You Do Breast Self Exams? 

It is encouraged that you do your self exams regularly, at least once a month. But feel free to do the breast self exam as often as you like. The best time to check your breasts is 3 to 5 days after your period ends. At this time, your breasts are less tender and lumpy. 

It is normal to feel lumps and ridges in your breasts. These may change or appear and disappear throughout your menstrual cycle and as you age. It is important to make it a habit to check your breasts to understand what “normal” looks like and feels like for you. 

To help you out, you can record your observations in a journal, identifying where you usually feel those lumps. When it comes to self exams and lab tests for breast cancer, being detailed and specific can significantly help your doctor come up with a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for you. 

What Signs Should I Look Out For?

Every woman’s breast is different. Breasts come in different shapes and sizes, and may change as one ages. It is important to familiarize yourself with what is normal and typical for your breasts. 

The breast self-exam aims to check for the following abnormalities or irregularities: 

  •     Hard lumps or nodules
  •     Thickening of breast tissue
  •     Changes in texture and contour of the breast 
  •     The nipple becoming inverted (turning inwards) 
  •     Suspicious discharge from the nipple
  •     Tissue that is warm to the touch and different from other surrounding tissue
  •     Swelling
  •     Pain and itchiness 

Lumps may appear and disappear over the course of your menstrual cycle, especially if you are still ovulating. Consult your doctor if you experience any symptoms you’d like to check out.   

Self Exams and Lab Tests for Breast Cancer

How do I perform a self-exam?

The breast self-exam is very simple to do, and it only takes a few minutes. You can do it in bed or right after a bath when you are most comfortable. 

In bed, lying down

When in a lying position, put your right arm above your head, laying it flat on the bed. Then use the three fingers from your left hand to gently press into your right breast. With the pads of your fingers, make circular movements around the breast and armpit. Use light, medium, and firm pressure to feel for ridges and lumps. Check if there is discharge when you squeeze the nipple. Switch, and do the same to the other breast. 

In the shower

Raise your right arm and place it behind your head. Then using the three fingers of your left hand, make circular movements around the breast and armpit. Do the other side. Feel for any abnormalities in the tissue, and do not forget to check your nipple for any abnormal discharge.

It is also advised that you do your self exam in front of a mirror to help you see areas that may be overlooked. If you see or feel any persisting abnormalities, consult your doctor.

self exams and lab tests for breast cancer

Why Are Lab Tests Necessary?

While self exams play an important part in the early detection of breast cancer, official medical lab tests are necessary to properly diagnose and treat the condition. Self exams and lab tests for breast cancer, when done correctly and considered properly in your treatment plan, will yield positive outcomes. 

After a physical exam and consultation with your doctor, you may be requested to undergo the following tests:

Mammography

This is an X-ray imaging of the breasts. It can be used either for screening or for diagnostic purposes.

During a mammogram, the breasts are pressed between two firm surfaces to spread out the breast tissues. Then an X-ray is used to capture the images that are displayed on a computer screen and examined for signs of malignancy.

Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy

The Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy (FNAB) test is a type of procedure wherein it uses a small needle to collect sample tissue from the suspected mass in the breasts. This sample is then sent to a lab where the cells will be analyzed if it is benign or malignant in nature. The biopsy can also help in staging breast cancer. This is a quick, outpatient procedure that may not require anesthesia. It is one of the preferred methods as it delivers high accuracy. 

Core Needle Biopsy

This type of biopsy uses a long, hollow tube to collect a sample of tissue as opposed to FNAB. The sample is then sent to a lab for testing and evaluation by pathologists to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant.

Whole Tumor Biopsy

If the aspiration does not provide the information needed by the doctor to confirm breast cancer, a whole tumor biopsy may be requested. The removal of the tumor is guided by ultrasound scans, and is usually done using local anesthesia but without the need for hospitalization. 

Cytology

While the FNAB and core needle biopsy are means to collect cell samples, cytology is the closer examination of these cells. It allows the medical team to draw more information about the cells. 

Used for screening and diagnosing, cytology uses sample cells removed from the affected breast tissue to check whether the cells are normal or show signs of cancer. It can provide more information about estrogen receptors and other factors that help assess the disease.

Key Takeaways

Early detection through the help of self exams and lab tests for breast cancer is important, especially in boosting the survival rate of patients. As a highly curable disease, breast cancer is best treated when it is in its initial stages. Self exams and lab tests for breast cancer, as well as other tools, can help detect abnormalities even when the patient does not yet exhibit any symptoms. 

Learn more about Women’s Health, here.

Disclaimer

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jezreel Esguerra, MD

General Practitioner


Written by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza · Updated Dec 19, 2022

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