Women have long been told, schooled, and practically cajoled by their healthcare providers to check their breasts monthly for signs of cancer. But a report out in July from the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research, questions whether that really does any good.
Researchers looking at studies in Russia and China – involving more than 380,000 women – determined that there was no significant difference in cancer deaths between those who performed monthly breast self-exams and those who didn’t. So beyond visiting your clinician yearly for a clinical breast exam, and getting those mammograms after age 40, what’s a gal to do?
Don’t take a “hands-off” approach, urges nurse practitioner Sherry Goldman, who performs all of the clinical breast exams at the breast center at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“The study does not mean that women should not ever touch their own breasts,” says Goldman, who sits on the board of directors of the National Breast Cancer Coalition and found her own breast cancer through self-exam when it was the size of a grain of rice. “I have been teaching breast self-exams for 16 years, and although I have never believed that women should go on a ‘search and destroy’ mission, I do believe that being familiar with your own breasts is the name of the game.”
Goldman says that most breast cancer is found either by a partner, or by the woman herself during a shower or some other unrelated activity. So knowing your breast anatomy and noticing changes is important.
“I personally feel that ‘knowing thy breasts’ is the approach to take,” Goldman says. Doctors can help as well, by pointing out landmarks. Many women, for instance, have a ridge of tissue under their breasts known as the infra-mammary ridge, and some have cysts or more tissue in the upper outer quadrants of their breasts. “If every woman knows what is normal for her,” Goldman says, “she will most likely note what is abnormal.”