10/02/02 - Breast Self Exams

A new study reports breast self exams are worthless. The report, published in the Journal of the National Cancer institute, says self exams don't detect tumors early enough to reduce the risk of death from breast cancer. But not everyone agrees with the findings.

Dr. Michael Jessup says breast self exams do work, and can find lumps, that may be cancerous. "Supposedly, about ten percent of breast cancer won't show up on mammography and sometimes those lumps are found by women," Dr. Jessup says. Dr. Jessup thinks breast self exams, along with a clinical exam by a doctor, and yearly mammograms after 40, are the best way to fight breast cancer. "In my way of looking at this, if it doesn't hurt the patient any, if it takes a little more time for the doctor to look over it, it increases awareness and may in turn increase a patient's chance of coming in later, getting a mammogram and finding cancer," Dr. Jessup says.

A ten year study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, doesn't necessarily agree. In a study of 266,000 women in China, it found no difference in the group that did self exams, and the ones who did not do exams.
But Dr. Jessup says breast self exams do work, and they should be done consistently. "The patients bring attention to lumps that are persistent and increase in size," Dr. Jessup says. "If a patient does one every six months and then finds a lump, she doesn't know what to compare it to."
The best time to do a self exam is the week after your menstrual cycle, a simple step that won't cost you a thing. "I guess from the physicians standpoint they have to take time in the office to instruct," Dr. Jessup says. "I wouldn't say time between the physician and patient is wasted, like the study implied."