Experts Debate Value of Breast Self-Exams

A controversial review reinforces the idea that self-screening does little good.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 2:26 PM

July 16, 2008-- -- Patty Myers dodged a bullet two years ago.

With a family history of breast cancer, Myers says she had performed a breast self exam, or BSE, from the relatively young age of 20 on the advice of her mother.

"I had never really felt anything abnormal or unusual," she recalls. "But when I was 28 years old I felt something that was not normal, something that gave me pause."

Her discovery prompted a visit to the doctor. The lump in Myers' breast turned out to be a cancerous tumor in its early stages. Surgeons removed the tumor and Myers underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

Now 30, Myers -- who has since become the director of operations for the patient advocacy group -- says she is breast-cancer free. And she credits breast self examination for the early detection.

"For me, BSE was so important, because women my age do not get mammograms; it's not covered by insurance," she says. "I had talked to my doctor about getting a mammogram, and the recommendation was for me to start at age 30.

"Had I not been doing [BSE], I presume my cancer would not have been detected until I started getting mammograms, and God knows what it would have been by then."

Although Myers says her experience made her a believer in self exams, a review published in the Cochrane Library in 2003 suggested that teaching and encouraging women to conduct self screening may be of little if any use when it comes to decreasing the death risk from breast cancer.

And, in the latest update to this review, which Cochrane released today, Danish researchers further downplay the importance of breast self examination.

"Self-exams are no longer recommended in Denmark, as they have no benefits, only harms," review co-author Dr. Peter Gøtzsche, director of the Nordic Cochrane Centre and Lecturer in medical science theory and ethics at Copenhagen University, told

The harm, Gøtzsche said, comes into play when women find lumps in their breasts that are not breast cancer -- discoveries that he said lead to unnecessary medical procedures and unnecessary worry. Even when a medical procedure is not necessary, a breast cancer false alarm can lead to emotional turmoil that can affect relationships and other aspects of day-to-day life.