What is a Clinical Breast Exam and How Often Do I Need to Do It?

Question: What is a clinical breast exam and why and how often do I need it done?

Answer: A clinical breast exam would be something done by your health care professional. And I say health care professional because that doesn't necessarily mean physician. Generally we think about the family practitioner, the gynecologist, or in some specialized cases, the surgeon. But increasingly, there are nurse practitioners who are responsible for people's wellbeing and health care and this person should be incorporated in the team.

The clinical exam is something that would be done at least once a year and in patients who are higher risk, maybe even every four to six months. It's an examination done usually in two positions, one sitting and what we call supine or lying down. The entire lymph node area is checked, those around your neck and in the armpit.

As well, you check the whole breast, both sitting and lying down. And then you check the nipple for any discharge. It's important to do this because although mammography is wonderful at picking up many, many small, early lesions, it can miss 10-15 percent of things. So it's important to coordinate the two and use them in a complimentary way.

Next: If I Have Fibrocystic Changes in the Breast, Should I See a Cancer Specialist or My Primary Care Provider for a Clinical Breast Exam?

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