A breast examination by a health professional (such as your doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner) is an important part of routine physical checkups. As indicated in our section about mammograms, you should have a clinical exam at least every three years starting at age 20, and every year at age 40. A clinical breast exam may be recommended more frequently if you have a strong history of breast cancer.
The best time to undergo a breast exam is soon after your menstrual period ends, because your breasts will not be as tender and swollen as during your period. This makes it easier to detect any unusual changes. If you have stopped menstruating, you should schedule the yearly exam on a day that's easy to remember, such as a birth date.
What Happens During a Breast Physical Exam?
Your healthcare provider will ask you detailed questions about your health history, including your menstrual and pregnancy history. Questions might include what age you started menstruating, if you have children and how old you were when your first child was born.
A thorough breast exam will be performed. For the exam, you undress from the waist up, and your healthcare provider will look at your breasts for changes in size or shape. Your provider may ask you to lift your arms over your head, put your hands on your hips or lean forward. He or she will examine your breasts for any skin changes including rashes, dimpling or redness. This is a good time to learn how to do a self breast exam if you don't already know how.
As you lay on your back with your arms behind your head, your healthcare provider will examine your breasts with the pads of his/her fingers to detect lumps or other changes. The area under both arms will also be examined.
Your healthcare provider will gently press around your nipple to check for any discharge. If there is discharge, a sample may be collected for examination under a microscope. A thorough clinical breast exam may take about 10 minutes.