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Breast Exam

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What is a clinical breast exam (CBE)?

A clinical breast exam (CBE) is a physical exam done by a health care provider as part of your regular medical check-up. Your provider should carefully feel your breasts and underarm for any changes or abnormalities (such as a lump). He/she should visually check your breasts while you are sitting up and physically examine your breasts while you are lying down. It is important to ask for a CBE if one is not offered at your check-up.

Who should perform a clinical breast exam?

A CBE should be performed by a health care provider well trained in the technique (this may be a physician, nurse practitioner or other medical staff). However, not all providers may have this training.

At what age should I start getting clinical breast exams?

Starting at age 20, CBE is part of routine breast cancer screening for women. When you begin having mammograms, CBE complement these screenings.

1. Know your risk

Talk to your family to learn about your family health history

Talk to your health care provider about your personal risk of breast cancer

2. Get screened

Ask your health care provider which screening tests are right for you if you are at higher risk

Have a mammogram every year starting at age 40 if you are at average risk

Have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40

Sign up for your screening reminder at

3. Know what is normal for you and see your health care provider if you notice any of these breast changes:

Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area

Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast

Change in the size or shape of the breast

Dimpling or puckering of the skin

Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple

Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast

Nipple discharge that starts suddenly

New pain in one spot that doesn't go away

4. Make healthy lifestyle choices

Maintain a healthy weight

Add exercise into your routine

Limit alcohol intake

Limit menopausal hormone therapy (postmenopausal hormone use)

Breastfeed, if you can

Accuracy of clinical breast exam

CBE can be helpful in finding tumors in women under age 40 (for whom mammography is not recommended).

In women ages 40 and older, CBE combined with mammography may find more cancers than mammography alone. When used together at yearly check-ups, fewer breast cancers are missed. Although an important complement to mammography, CBE is not a substitute for mammograms in women 40 and older.

Most health organizations recommend CBE as a part of regular breast cancer screening. However, there are some drawbacks to its use. One downside is the increased chance of false positive results that require follow-up tests. False positives occur when a CBE finds something that looks or feels like cancer, but turns out to be benign (not cancer). One large study found the chance of having a false positive result after 10 yearly CBE was about 20 percent.

Thinking a false positive result may be breast cancer until cancer is ruled out can cause fear and worry. However, this does not outweigh the life-saving benefits of regular screening.


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