Some doctors still recommend that women examine their breasts for lumps or other changes. Dr. Sandhya Pruthi calls the self-exam an important part of a triad that also includes clinical exams and mammograms.
A professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Pruthi says none of these tools is perfect, but they all complement one another.
"Sometimes a woman may feel a lump that the mammogram doesn't even find," she says. "Is it helpful then? Yeah, big time."
As a case in point, "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts gave an on-air tribute in July to her friend and colleague Joel Siegel, who had recently died of colon cancer. That night she did a breast self-exam and discovered a lump. It turned out to be cancer.
In a message to her fans, Roberts wrote, "I can't stress enough how important it is to get screened and checked for all cancers -- and to do self breast exams."
Look at your breasts in the mirror, from the front and from both sides. Does anything seem unusual? Check for puckering or dimpling; changes in size, shape or symmetry; or inverted nipples. Do this first with your arms at your sides, then with your hands on your hips and finally with your hands over your head, palms pressed together.
Do the next part of the exam in the shower or lying down. Some experts recommend doing both.
If you're in the shower, lather your fingers and breasts with soap. This will reduce friction and help your fingers move smoothly. If you're lying down, make sure you're on a flat surface (e.g., your bed), and don't wear a shirt or bra.
To search for lumps, palpate each of your breasts thoroughly. Be sure to start high enough (at your collarbone), go under your armpits and cover your entire breast -- in concentric circles, wedges or whatever pattern works for you.
Check each of your nipples for discharge by gently pinching them with your fingers at the 12 and 6 o'clock positions and again with your fingers at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions.
If you find a lump or notice anything else that seems wrong or just different -- asymmetry, dimpling, nipple discharge or inversion -- see your doctor right away.
-- Karen Ravn