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Nearly 70 percent of all breast cancers are found through self-exams and with early detection the five year survival rate is 98 percent. If you find a lump, don't panic as eight out of 10 lumps are not cancerous.
Last fall, a U.S. task force discouraged women from performing breast self-exams (BSE). In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a recommendation that discouraged manual breast exams whether done by a woman on herself or by a doctor.
You may not have heard about this guideline because the task force also recommended that most women under age 50 not participate in regular mammograms. This recommendation surprised many and nearly obliterated all other breast-related news.
The recommendations were based on two large studies done in China and Russia. The studies compared women who were taught BSE and who performed BSE versus women who did nothing and found discouragingly similar death rates from breast cancer. At the same time, the women who performed BSE found more benign tumors requiring painful and expensive biopsies.
Yet many doctors feel the data supporting the recommendations is flawed. For example, the Breast Center at the University of Wisconsin conducted their own BSE study, which was published last year, and concluded BSE can be effective for women who are dedicated to performing it.
As one doctor stated, the more you practice BSE, the better you get. Learning your breast geography is a big part of the process. Also, don't look only for lumps as many cancers feel more like an irregular area where the skin sometimes puckers.
What experts stress is that cancer detection is as much art as science. If you are a woman under 50, mastering BSE might be your best option. According to one 39-year-old cancer survivor who found her cancer during a self-exam, we're lucky that our breasts are on the outside of our bodies—we're not talking about our lungs here. We have the power to look, to feel, and to learn when something may be wrong.
The Internet offers oodles of sites that demonstrate and describe how to perform your own monthly BSE. Some of those websites include: