Monthly breast self-exam (BSE) has been an important part of breast cancer screening for women of all ages. A suspicious area or lump found during BSE has led to many diagnoses and successful treatments of breast cancer.
Still, screening techniques aren't perfect. One problem with both BSE and mammography is what's called a false positive. A false positive is a suspicious result that causes concern when nothing is wrong. Besides the fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer, a false positive usually means more tests (including biopsies) and follow-up doctor visits. The process can be very stressful and upsetting.
A retrospective study looked at the results of two studies, one from Russia and one from China, which compared the health histories of nearly 400,000 women. Some of the women did BSE. Others did not.
The researchers found that:
- Women who didn't do BSE weren't more likely than women who did BSE to be diagnosed with and die from breast cancer.
- Women who did BSE were twice as likely as women who didn't do BSE to have had a breast biopsy that showed no cancer (a false positive).
- The Russian study showed that more breast cancers were diagnosed in women who did BSE compared to women who didn't do BSE. This difference wasn't found in the Chinese study.
It's not clear how these findings apply to women in the United States because U.S. healthcare is very different than Russian and Chinese healthcare. Still, similar research results led the American Cancer Society to change its BSE recommendations. Instead of a recommended breast cancer screening tool, the American Cancer Society now views BSE as an optional screening tool.
Because BSE has helped diagnose and successfully treat many breast cancers, it might be hard to understand why opinions about BSE have changed. It helps to look at the issue from both a large, public health viewpoint and a smaller, individual health viewpoint.
From a public health perspective, research suggests that regular BSE (and money spent to promote regular BSE) doesn't really change the overall effect breast cancer has on a population of women. So regularly recommending it (and spending money to promote it) may not make sense.
From an individual health perspective, if you or someone you know had breast cancer diagnosed and treated because of something found during BSE, BSE is very valuable to you. So any woman who wants to do all that she can to monitor her breast health should do BSE, despite the risk of false positives.
Healthcare decisions, including BSE, are individual choices based on the information available and each person's unique situation. A woman can choose to make doing regular BSE part of her personal breast health monitoring and breast cancer screening plan. In many cases, official recommendations and guidelines can affect whether or not insurance companies cover a screening technique or procedure. But this isn't true for BSE, which costs only your time and commitment.
Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of regular BSE and whether BSE should be part of your personal breast cancer screening plan. Together you can make a choice that makes the most sense for you. No matter what you decide about BSE, it's very important to remember that if you're over 40 regular screening mammograms must be done. Regular mammograms help diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable.
Visit the Breastcancer.org Breast Self-Exam section to learn more about how to do BSE.