Do Breast Self-exams Really Save Lives?

The results might be in, but the battle for breast-cancer awareness has just begun. Researchers who performed a ten-year study in Shanghai, China, reported in October 2002 that breast self-examinations (BSEs) didn't decrease mortality in women despite the fact that, for years, experts have recommended BSEs as an effective way to detect breast cancer in its early stages. Although no one disputes the validity of the study findings, breast-cancer activists are concerned that the public has received the information without a complete and accurate explanation.

"When you ask a room full of a hundred women who have all had breast cancer, one-third will tell you they detected it from a breast self-exam," says Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco. "The key is acknowledging that all of the methods of detection have limitations, and none of them alone can save anyone's life. But still, early detection can make a difference." Remember, detection in the first stage of breast cancer greatly increases your chance of curing the disease.

The October announcement wasn't the first time the Shanghai researchers questioned the effectiveness of self-exams. Five years into the ten-year program, the researchers had told the media that BSEs were not increasing women's chances of beating the disease. They also suggested that self-exams were raising women's awareness of benign tumors, which they might not have noticed otherwise. This worried medical professionals because more than 80 percent of the time, biopsies result in a negative diagnosis, leaving a woman's breast with scar tissue that can make cancer detection more difficult later on.

Nurse practitioner Sherry Goldman, RN, NP, director of patient relations at the UCLA Breast Center, has been working with breast-cancer patients for a decade. Despite the study findings, she says women have no reason to stop breast self-exams. Instead, she suggests educating women about how to do proper breast exams.

Breast self-exams, mammograms, and physical exams done by professionals are what women currently rely on to detect breast cancer. None are foolproof methods of finding the disease early. "If you teach women to do self-exams and they know the landmarks in their breasts, they'll notice if there are changes," Goldman says. "This can give them the green light to go to a clinic."

Early detection is what experts say women should focus on, not studies that fail to explain individual situations. "Whether breast self-exams are effective is a controversy that will never be resolved because these big studies can't be translated into what happens in an individual," explains Brenner. "The truth is simply that women need to know their own bodies, and I don't think even the people who did the study would dispute that."

—Shanti Sosienski