No doubt you’ve heard before that it’s a good—and convenient—idea to check your breasts for potentially cancerous lumps when you’re in the shower. Cancer patient Hayley Browning did monthly shower checks and examined her breasts in the mirror on occasion—but she detected a suspicious lump in a completely different way.
Browning, 27, was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few weeks ago, and she’s now sharing the “trick” she discovered that led to her diagnosis in hopes that it will help other women.
“I'm hoping to share a little trick of mine with as many people as possible, which could potentially help save someone's life,” Browning wrote in a Facebook post on February 4. “Three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I could only feel the lump whilst lying down and it completely disappeared [when I was] standing up.”
Browning points out that most websites encourage women to check for lumps in the shower, but if she had only followed that advice, her lump may have gone undetected, giving her a worse prognosis. “Not even the surgeon could feel my lump when I was standing up,” she says. “So, this is a call-out to all women to check for lumps lying down, as well as standing up.”
Browning is getting ready to undergo chemotherapy and says she wants to try to help others. “I want to reach as many people with this message and help find more #LaidBackLumps,” she says.
Browning’s Facebook post has since been shared 115,000 times and earned more than 23,000 comments, with some women sharing similar breast cancer detection stories.
Clearly, Browning's story shows that breast self-exams have merit—even if they're somewhat controversial in the medical world. The American Cancer Society no longer recommends breast self-exams or breast exams done by a doctor because research hasn't proven that they reduce breast cancer mortality. They can also lead to unnecessary stress and testing.
However, the organization says, all women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report changes to their doctor “right away.” That’s why most medical experts still recommend doing monthly breast self-exams and having your doctor examine your breasts during routine physicals as well.
This is especially important since the American Cancer Society also now recommends some women have fewer mammograms, starting at a later age, Kevin S. Hughes, M.D., F.A.C.S., codirector of the Avon Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. If you don't get mammograms, don't check your own breasts, and a doctor doesn't either, it can delay finding any potential cancer, he says.
If checking your breasts every month seems like a bit much, you should do the best you can. “In general, women should do this periodically so they are aware of how their breasts feel,” Priya Thomas, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical cancer prevention at MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells SELF, adding that the exams should ideally be performed both while standing up and lying down.
It’s not unusual for a breast lump to only be detected when a person is lying down, Dr. Hughes says. “This is dependent on the size of the cancer, how hard it is (some cancers are softer than others), the location of the cancer in the breast, and how the breast sits or hangs when upright versus lying down,” he says.
In fact, he adds, it can be easier to detect a lump when a patient is lying down. Brian Czerniecki, M.D., chairman of the department of breast oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, agrees. “The geometry of the breast flattens and spreads out, sometimes making lumps easier to feel,” he tells SELF.
However, women are typically encouraged to check in the shower because their skin is soapy and slippery, making it easier to feel anything unusual. “It would be ideal for women to check in the shower and to check while lying down, but any checking (one way or the other) is better than no checking,” Dr. Hughes says.
Dr. Czerniecki says the method for checking your breasts is the same, whether you’re standing or lying down. That means using a systematic approach so that you feel the entire breast, Dr. Thomas says. To do a proper breast self-exam, put one hand behind your head and use the middle fingers of your other hand to gently but firmly push down on your breast.
You can start by going in a circular motion starting from the nipple outward, using both light and firm pressure to feel for lumps that may be deeper in the breast tissue. “It is also important to look for any skin changes such as dimpling, skin thickening, or nipple discharge,” Dr. Thomas says.
If you find a lump, don't panic. The vast majority of breast lumps aren't cancerous, Richard Reitherman, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Caliornia, tells SELF. However, you need to get a medical opinion. "Do not cease and desist until you’ve gotten a good explanation," he says.
That means you need to see your primary care physician and get a referral to a breast health center where people know how to deal with lumps. "All lumps should have an ultrasound," Dr. Reitherman says. And, he adds, it's important to advocate for yourself. "Don't stop until you've gotten an excellent answer or biopsy, because that's how things are missed," he says.
By Korin Miller of SELF Magazine