Touch yourself

How to examine your breasts for abnormalities with a friend

Column note

The c-word has always been a word that has made me shudder, but the idea of a self examination used to make me cringe even more. When I was first advised to do so at age 17, touching my recently developed body felt cold and alien, a feeling that could only be sated by the justification of medical need. It took three years for me to fully understand the importance of such an act and to this day I practice the routine check-ups for a change in the terrain of my skin because, as they always say, “you never know.”

I often find myself wondering how to step out of that fear box and into a place of safety and comfort. Following the same methods that we use to teach children to brush their teeth and eat their vegetables, I call upon you all to make preventive measures more fun. Turning the “self-exam” into a moment for you to share with your significant other is a good step to transforming this once uncomfortable act into a beautiful statement about the importance of being proactive about your health. There are many ways that you can help yourself and your partner be more knowledgeable about your bodies and most of them don’t start in textbooks or in chat rooms. Because you see yourself naked every day, it can be easy to overlook changes in your body that occur gradually, or chalk them up to simply growing older. Having your significant other assist you in this process will provide a fresh set of caring eyes and hands. Two heads are better than one, right? So light some candles and put on some Michael Bolton. It’s time to play doctor!

Start by standing together in front of a large mirror. Be sure that you both can have a clear view of the breast tissue. The position that I have found to be the most favorable is me standing in front and my partner standing behind me with his chest to my back. This allows me to have full use of my hands if I need to point something out to him, or vice-versa. This is not the only way to do it, so find a position that works best for you. Don’t be afraid to turn together during the process so that you can see things from other angles. Some women also like to use a lotion or powder or massage oils to help their fingers slide more smoothly over the skin, so feel free to use those if you feel as though that will make the process more comfortable for both of you.

The examinee should stand with her arms to her sides in a relaxed position. Look for obvious signs of skin puckering, dimpling, scaliness or discharge. The next step requires her to place her hands behind her head with her elbows raised. Bring your hands forward to close the space between your hands and your head, and watch the breast tissue move. Next, have her place her hands on her hips and slowly lean towards the mirror and look for the same types of changes. The next step requires you to lie down and look for anything unusual from that angle, so don’t be afraid to lay down a soft towel or blanket to make it more comfortable. Next is the fun part. Use a firm but smooth touch with your fingertips to massage the breast tissue in a pattern that ensures you will cover the entire breast. Some women use lines, as if they’re mowing a lawn, going from top to bottom or side to side. The circular method from the nipple to the outer edges of the breast around the armpit and collarbone also works well. Don’t be afraid to repeat steps at different angles for the most accuracy. The best part about having an extra set of hands is the ability to feel both breasts at the same time, so if you do notice something strange, you can simultaneously check to see if it’s the same on the other side. Chances are the tissue is normal if it feels the same in both breasts.

If you do feel a lump that is definitely different, there may be a good reason for concern. If you notice any sort of irregularity, it is important to contact your health care provider right away, and your partner can help you through this process. It is perfectly natural to feel scared if you notice something abnormal, but having a support system there with you through the whole process can help. Your partner can help you by not only ensuring that you do seek help in a timely manner, but helping you prepare for the actual appointment. Do not let the prospect of cancer delay you from acting because, after all, 80 percent of all lumps are benign.

It’s too easy to be overcome by the disasters in life and we often forget to find the magic in little moments. With one out of every eight women having some form of intrusive breast cancer throughout their lifetime, cancer is a serious and scary subject. By making the steps toward prevention less daunting, we can help thousands of women and their loved ones to catch changes early on, increasing the likelihood of recovery. Together we can help stop breast cancer, and in the words of my favorite crooner, all it takes is a little time, love and tenderness.