You know you've done it... at least if you have two X chromosomes. When you were 10 years old, you used to spend hours in front of the mirror stuffing your training bra with Kleenex trying to make your boobs look bigger. Well now that you are older (and your fake boobs have turned into real breasts), you should still spend some quality naked time in front of the mirror inspecting your breasts, but for a completely different reason. There is a greater than 1 in 10 chance that a woman will contract breast cancer at some point over her lifetime, and over 1,000,000 women find lumps in their breasts (some cancerous, most benign) every year. While these statistics often freak people out, a simple Breast Self-Examination (BSE) could be the key to finding any abnormality early on. And since the American Cancer Society recommends that women aged 20 and older should conduct Breast Self-Exam on a monthly basis, it is never too soon to learn how to do it right.


The purpose of a Breast Self-Exam is for you to learn the topography of your breasts. Knowing how your breasts normally feel will allow you to notice changes in the future. There is a three-pronged attack one can make in order to detect breast cancer:

  1. Breast Self-Examination: Feeling your breasts. What this article is all about.

  2. Mammography: An X-ray of your breast. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screenings for women age 40 and older. We'll talk about this more in step 4.

  3. Clinical Breast Examination (CBE): When an experienced doctor examines your breasts.

Remember: The BSE should be used in combination with mammography and the CBE. In fact, it is controversial whether BSEs alone can actually reduce the incidence of deaths from breast cancer. Women should never use BSEs as a substitute for mammography or CBEs, because while it's really easy to do a BSE, it's also the least precise method.

Statistics about breast cancer

We think that it's best to let the facts speak for themselves:

  • Each year, 182,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer, as compared to about 1,000 men.

  • Approximately 46,000 (25%) of these diagnoses will result in death.

  • Breast cancer is the second most common cancer found in women (following skin cancer) and the second most deadly cancer for women (following lung cancer).

  • A popular myth is that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. This is not true. The Harvard Guide to Women's Health (1996) explains it like this: "What it really means is that – at the time of birth – a baby girl has a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her life." However, "Of all women under 75, only 1 out of 40 is expected to die of breast cancer before reaching age 75." The 1 in 8 statistic is misleading because one must remember that older women are much more at risk than younger women.

  • If found early enough, almost 95% of all cases of breast cancer can be cured. That's why the BSE is so important. ANYTHING you can do to help you find something early will greatly increase your chances of getting rid of the cancer.

Risk factors

You can't get breast cancer from bumping or bruising your breast, nor can you catch breast cancer from someone else, like the chicken pox. Rather, there are several risk factors which will determine how likely you are to contract breast cancer. Below, we talk about the main ones, in order of their importance: age, family history, personal history, and lifestyle.

AGE: It's pretty rare for women younger than 35 to have breast cancer (the risk for the disease increases exponentially by age). Most breast cancers occur in women older 50.

The risk of developing breast cancer in the next year Age Risk 20-24 1 in 110,000 25-29 1 in 12,850 30-34 1 in 3,700 35-39 1 in 1,555 40-44 1 in 790 45-49 1 in 531 50-54 1 in 450 55-59 1 in 386 60-64 1 in 292 65-69 1 in 244 70-74 1 in 215 75-79 1 in 215

Source: National Cancer Institute

FAMILY HISTORY: If your mother, sister, or daughter has developed breast cancer before menopause, you are three times more likely to develop the disease. If two or more close relatives (e.g., cousins, aunts, grandmothers) have/had breast cancer, you are at increased risk as well. Recently, scientists have found that mutations in genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase one's susceptibility to breast cancer. A simple blood test can tell you if you have such a condition.

PERSONAL HISTORY: If you've had breast cancer, you have an increased risk of getting it again. Also, if you've had benign breast disease (e.g., fibrocystic breast disease), you are at an increased risk. The following also put you at greater risk:

  • If you began menstruating early (before age 12)
  • If you take birth control pills (though evidence is not conclusive)
  • If you never have children
  • If you have children when you are 30 or older
  • If you have menopause at 55 or older
  • If you take Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

As you may have noticed, most of these risk factors involve your level of estrogen. Higher estrogen levels are strongly linked with susceptibility to breast cancer.

LIFESTYLE: There have been several studies that found a lower incidence of breast cancer among women who exercise regularly and a higher proportion of breast cancer among obese women. There is also evidence that there is increased risk of breast cancer with increased alcohol use (i.e., 3 or more drinks per week); perhaps due to the fact that alcohol increases blood estrogen levels.