Re-Acquainting Myself With the Breast Self Exam

Posted on: June 16th, 2016 by

Once upon a pre-breast cancer time, a physician paid me a high compliment. “You do better breast exams than most doctors,” he said. And I think he was right. Every month I performed the same ritual: a thorough breast self-exam, including the look-at-your-breasts-in-the-mirror test.

Although I always dreaded the idea of something possibly being wrong, I examined my breasts thoroughly and regularly.

Until a breast self exam (BSE) saved my life.

After I found an odd, but ever-so-subtle dimple during an anything-but-routine BSE, I made the dreaded appointment with my gynecologist, who ordered a diagnostic mammogram, which showed an abnormal mass.

The rest is history. Breast cancer. Two lumpectomies. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Aromatase Inhibitors. Constant monitoring. False scares. A mass found via MRI in the same breast five years after diagnosis. Scared shitless. Another lumpectomy to remove the mass. Benign this time. Fought for a bilateral mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction. Done. And done. My “healthy” left breast loaded with pre-cancerous cells.

Turns out, the bilateral mastectomy saved my life.

I’ve been a medical success story thus far, and I am grateful. Before and after surgery, my mastectomy surgeon emphasized the importance of continuing to do BSEs, as it’s impossible to remove all breast tissue during the mastectomy.

And now I have a confession to make. You can probably guess what it is.

I haven’t done a BSE since my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.

I’m too afraid of finding something.

Thick fear suffocating me.

I’ve let my fingers do the walking way too much for my taste. So I’ve let my doctors’ fingers do the walking instead.

But I realize that my dependence on my doctors’ breast exams must be over. I need to once again take ownership of my health in this arena.

So, here I am, a BSE newbie again, learning the unfamiliar terrain of breasts that are mine-yet-aren’t-mine.

My first post-mastectomy BSE is just around the corner. A corner I must unwillingly turn.

Doing a BSE will be emotional. I weep just thinking about it.

But being proactive is my only choice.

I must go forward.

Do you do/Have you done breast self exams?

How was your breast cancer discovered?

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7 Responses to Re-Acquainting Myself With the Breast Self Exam

  1. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I never really did breast SEs consistently. Not sure why I didn’t, although these days they aren’t recommended anymore anyway. Having said that, you are so fortunate you were diligent about doing them since you found your cancer via a SE. As you know, my cancer was discovered after I experienced chest pain and thought I was having a heart attack. Nope. Not a heart attack. Good luck moving forward here too. Being proactive is sometimes challenging, that’s for sure. Thank you for sharing about your experience here too.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Being proactive is definitely the way to go. Yes, it’s true that nowadays BSE’s are not recommended. I kind of disagree with that because I feel that BSE’s are another tool to try to detect any abnormalities. It definitely worked for me, although I know that it doesn’t work for many people.

      I’m glad you didn’t have a heart attack, but not happy that you were diagnosed with cancer instead.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, this is such an important topic. I found my own lump, and since then, have been scared to check. But I do BSEs once a month, 10 days after my menstrual period starts which is the recommended time due to breasts density (harder to find lumps during ovulation).

    I strongly believe no one knows your body better than yourself. One thing I’ll always remember is pointing to the site where my lump was because no doctor was able to feel it. I had to manually show them (it was small and buried deep inside my right side).

    I am sorry you’ve had some scares. I still have my breasts and at times I wonder if I made the right choice to have a lumpectomy. Every appt. is nerve-wrecking for me but I assume this is the case for every patient regardless of what type of surgery they choose.

    I hope you never have to deal with this again. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you for sharing information about your doing BSEs. I agree that we know our bodies better than anyone, and that is certainly true in your case.

      I think it’s normal to second guess our surgical choices. You made the best decision you could under these stressful circumstances. I chose lumpectomy originally, and it’s a sound medical choice.

      My overly dense breast tissue was certainly a complication, which is why I eventually had a bilateral.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  3. Becky had this to say about that:

    I actually checked my breasts every day in the shower. It was my ritual. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I still checked. I found my mass (not really a lump). I had no idea that what I should have been looking for was “changes” … I think my age means I missed that part of the breast self-education. I vaguely remember the one lesson I had on self-exam when I was in high school.
    But my question now is what the heck does a self-exam look like with DIEP Flap reconstruction? My doctors haven’t adequately answered that question. I’m no longer looking for lumps or changes – the hard spots are fluid build up because there are no lymph nodes.. massaging makes them go softer .. I exam my breast skin … but I’m meticulous about it … lymphedema means that I need to massage anyways … so although my routine has changed a little, it is still the same … every day in the shower, I feel, and then after the shower I inspect … but I have no clue what I’m looking for … and I’m kind of afraid too … every new pain in my body triggers the fear .. and I fight it with my mental strength … sending you hugs and strength …

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Becky,

      You raise legitimate concerns. How do we do a self-exam with DIEP flap reconstruction? It is so difficult to get used to a new breast landscape. Yesterday, I asked my gynecologist about how to go about doing a BSE, but she said it wasn’t necessary. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that answer.

      I’m sorry you suffer from lymphedema. I don’t blame you for being afraid. I’m the same way about every pain; it launches me into an abyss of fear. Sending you hugs and strength as well.

  4. Mari Loosen had this to say about that:

    If I hadn’t found the hard spot on my right breast I had three months to live. I have aggressive lobular cancer. It does not show up on a mammogram or a ultrasound. The radiologist wanted me to come back in six months and recheck. My doctor insisted on a breast MRI. The tumor was 6cm and three weeks later at mastectomy it was 9 cm. I lost all my lymph nodes and have lymphedema. Now six years later it is in my bone. Stage four. About 18 months left to live. I don’t know why they don’t suggest self exams anymore. Mine saved my life. At least for a while. I’m on a very promising drug and there is another one that just came out in March that appears promising.

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