Breast Cancer Awareness: Self Exams

There’s a lot wrong with breast cancer awareness in America. It’s a disease everyone is already aware of, as it afflicts one in eight women. Many awareness campaigns are juvenile and unhelpful, like the Facebook status game that had women talking about where they kept their purse in sexually innuendo by saying things like “I like it on the couch.” Many more campaigns sexualize breast cancer, using healthy breasts and sophomoric statements like “save second base” to titillate. The biggest campaign comes from Susan G. Komen, a group rife with controversy and complaints about inflated salaries and underfunded programs to help cancer patients. Virtually all the awareness campaigns leave out male or AMAB people who develop breast cancer.

We all know breast cancer exists. We may not all know that the first symptom of breast cancer is usually a small, painless lump. Early diagnosis drastically improves a patient’s odds of stopping the cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body. That’s why monthly self-exams are so important for a good prognosis.

Color illustration shows breast changes to look for as part of a monthly self exam.

Color illustration shows breast changes to look for as part of a monthly self exam.

For an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person or AMAB (assigned male at birth) person using HRT (hormone replacement therapy), there are five steps to a monthly self exam. These steps include a visual inspection, dry touch, and wet touch in the shower. There are minor fluctuations in breast size and shape throughout the course of a hormone cycle, so doing your exam each month at the same time (or at the same point in your cycle) will give you an accurate reading without raising alarm about benign temporary changes. has detailed instructions with illustrations here.

While the majority (over 99%) of breast cancer patients are women, some men or AMAB people are at higher risk of developing it. Anyone with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or with a family history of breast cancer, is at a higher risk, regardless of gender or breast development. Instructions and illustrations for doing what’s called a Male Breast Self Exam are here.

Survival rates for cancer have improved greatly over the last several years. This is due to both improvements in treatment, and much earlier diagnosis. Monthly breast self exams take less than half an hour and are key to early detection, and preventing the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. I want to live in a world where this is what breast cancer awareness looks like, not pink football games and healthy breasts.


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