Self-exam: It’s not what you think

Guest writer Corrine Ellsworth-Beaumont, PhD, founder of the charity Worldwide Breast Cancer, takes the mystery out of self-exam and explains why her new app is going to change the picture of breast cancer for good.

"I've been performing self-exams wrong my entire life!" After people try our Know Your Lemons® app, this is something we hear a lot. Many admit they often didn’t do their self-exam before using the app because, well, no one really taught them how to do it. There are shower cards and drawings showing how to move your hand in a circle, or up-and-down or back-and-forth, but no one was explaining how different parts of the breast feel, and what is considered something unusual, or the three positions for exploring the whole breast. So for years, we have just been kinda fumbling through it and guessing. When we lose confidence, we stop altogether.

The thing is, that about 1-in-3 women are diagnosed with breast cancer because they found something between their regular mammograms, reported the change to their doctor and then got tested. When breast cancer is able to be found early, survival rates are incredibly high: like almost 100% when found in Stage I. So being aware of any changes is very important.

Some members of the medical community don’t recommend “self-exam” because they are worried a few things might happen:

  1. You’ll decide that if you don’t feel a lump, then there’s no reason to get a mammogram (a mammogram can find a cancerous lump before it can be felt, so it’s important).

  2. You’ll freak out over every little lump and bump and undergo testing you wouldn’t have otherwise done if you were blissfully ignorant. This might stress you out, and no one wants patients to stress out over nothing.

This thinking is based on some prominent studies that showed when you take two large groups of women: one set doing self-exam regularly, and the other set not doing self-exam, that one group doesn’t have any more deaths from breast cancer than the other. However, what the study (and us as women) can’t determine is which individual in those groups would have benefitted from self-exam. And since self-exam is free and easy to do, there’s not really a reason to tell women not to touch their breasts, which is what women think they are being told when their doctor says self-exam isn’t necessary.

Our view at Worldwide Breast Cancer is that rather than recommend against self-exam, that we should be better at explaining how it works and the purpose of it. The main message: don’t think of a self-exam as a “hunt” to find breast cancer or a formal medical procedure. Instead, see it as part of getting to know what is normal for you, how your cycle changes the landscape of your breasts every month, and how to be confident of the steps to take if a breast change doesn’t go away.

Being confident is a result of being well-informed. Only 2% of women know all the signs of breast cancer. We categorize it into 12 signs, and use a dozen lemons to illustrate them clearly, making it easy to remember. It’s why our #KnowYourLemons campaign is so famous and how we’ve educated over 200 million in such a short amount of time.

Another mistake women make is not timing your self-exam with your menstrual cycle. #FeelitontheFirst...is not actually right. You should be doing a self-exam at the end of your period, when your breasts are less affected by hormones, causing tenderness and lumps and bumps. Using the Know Your Lemons® app, you can get reminders timed to your period letting you know when the ideal time is to check. Otherwise if you do it on the first of the month, you’ll be comparing very different breasts...some breasts before your period, some breasts after your period, and it will be totes confusing as it will be changing. No period? Then #FeelitontheFirst all you like. Well, not all you like. You’ve got things to do.

Self exams take 10 minutes to learn. Using the Know Your Lemons® app, your self exam coach will guide you through every part of the breast and your armpit and collarbone (yep, those too!), instructing you on what you should be feeling in these areas. There is a 3 minute training video you can watch prior to performing your self exam that goes over the different lumps and bumps within the breast, what’s normal, and what is abnormal. It explains how to use three different positions too: Laying down (which you already know), bowing forward (how very gracious of you), and looking in the mirror (hello beautiful!).

Oh and did we mention that Mona Lisa is your breast exam coach?! We love to add some fun and humor to what we do. She’s been doing it for over 500 years, so she has TONS of experience. Why listen to a boring audio guide when Mona can keep you entertained while you learn? That’s our view anyway.

“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And then several of her friends were diagnosed too. This is when I found the Know Your Lemons® app. Needless to say the app is now practically required as far as the women in my family are concerned. I use it to self-exam every month, the reminders are so helpful!” Roxanne Gray, California

The app makes it easy to move throughout the exam by breaking down different parts of “Lemon Land” into different cities to explore, each with their own landscape. Ready to perform a self exam of your own? Good! See the graphic below, download the FREE Know Your Lemons® app and start getting to Know Your Lemons like a #Lemonista would!


Corrine Beaumont