Breast self-exams: Yay or nay?

CNN has posted a very interesting article about blind women in Germany who are being trained to perform breast examinations.  The program, called “Discovering Hands,” is based on the theory that the blind have a keener, more sensitive sense of touch and may be able to detect small lumps that may have otherwise been overlooked.

There is some debate about the utility of breast self-examinations.  A 2001 study published by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care argued that self exams do not benefit but rather cause harm to patients.  They associated self exams with a higher incidence of physician’s visits and unnecessary biopsies.  (You can access a summary of the article for free here.)

Based on my personal experience, I am an advocate of self exams.  One of my family members discovered a small lump while doing a self exam at home, which indeed turned out to be a tumor.  Luckily, it had not spread and required a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation to remove.  In our case, there was a family history of breast cancer and my relative was vigilant about doing self exams.  Since lumpiness of the breasts varies from woman to woman and depends on the time of the month, I can see how self exams can also be confounding and unreliable.  What are your opinions on breast self-examinations?

For more information on breast self-examination:

  • A guide from the American Cancer Society
  • A guide from the Susan G. Komen Foundation