For years, doctors have been telling women over the age of 20 that the best way to screen for breast cancer is through early detection with breast self-exams done at home. But many health experts and organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health, have changed their tune and are no longer emphasizing the importance of self-exams. So is a breast self-exam worth it or just a big waste of time?
Recent research lends credence to the belief that self-exams are less important than doctors once thought. A Chinese study that followed 300,000 women for 12 years found that those who were trained to perform self-exams did not find any more incidence of breast cancer than those who did not do the exams. Both groups also experienced an almost identical number of breast cancer deaths, leading researchers to determine that monthly self-exams did not help women detect breast cancer any earlier.
Still, some health experts are clinging to the notion that women know their breasts best and by regularly performing self-exams they can find abnormalities earlier than could be detected at regular checkups. But do those regular self-exams lead to false alarms? That's the fear and it's why many doctors and health organizations no longer recommend them. If you find a lump and go running to your doctor, he or she may be more likely to perform a biopsy to calm your anxiety. But biopsies are expensive and painful and come back negative 80 percent of the time.
The bottom line: The risk and probability of breast cancer is different for every women. Talk to your health care provider about whether or not it's a good idea for you to start (or continue) doing breast self-exams.