By contributor
updated 7/15/2008 9:50:14 PM ET 2008-07-16T01:50:14

Like many women, I’ve felt guilty about my slipshod breast exams for years. Sure, I’ll give the girls a good once-over in the shower now and then, but I’ve never diligently gone through all the motions (circular and otherwise), month in and month out.

So it was with a certain amount of relief that I read a new analysis confirming that the breast self-exam (or BSE) truly doesn’t make much of a difference after all.

According to a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research, there’s no evidence that self-exams actually reduce breast cancer deaths. In fact, the often-recommended monthly chore may even do more harm than good, according to the group’s analysis of a pair of studies of nearly 400,000 Chinese and Russian women.

“Data from two large trials do not suggest a beneficial effect of screening by (BSE) but do suggest harm in terms of increased numbers of benign lesions identified and an increased number of biopsies performed,” concluded the authors in Tuesday’s issue of The Cochrane Library. “At present, screening by breast self-examination … cannot be recommended.”

One fewer thing to do?
Chris Herget, a 44-year-old notary public from Bellevue, Wash., says while she’s surprised to hear this news, she, too, feels relieved.

“I’ve never really felt competent doing it myself anyway and I have very fibrous breasts so everything feels like a ‘pea,’” she says. “In fact, the first time I told a doctor that I thought I’d found a lump, he was like, ‘That’s nothing, that’s a fat cell.’”

But the news that the BSE is officially on the way out perplexes others.

“I guess it’s one less thing that I need to be doing, but it is a little confusing,” says Liz Lane, a 29-year-old public relations manager from New York City. “Now I’m not sure what I am supposed to do to check myself.”

The issue is complicated, acknowledges Dr. David B. Thomas, breast cancer epidemiologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.

“It’s important to separate out the public health implications from the implications for an individual woman,” says Thomas, who is also the author of the 2002 landmark study involving more than 250,000 Chinese women that was analyzed and affirmed by this latest review.

“If a woman is highly motivated — let’s say her mother or sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer — then of course she should practice breast self-exam. But that’s a different situation than trying to reach women on a mass scale. Our study shows that that’s probably a waste of time. You’re not going to get women sufficiently motivated to practice it well enough and frequently enough to make that big of a difference.”

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Lumps and bumps can be normal
What’s more, Thomas says BSEs can be problematic because the lumps and bumps women do report often turn out to be benign.

“The price you pay for doing more thorough breast exams is you’re going to find more benign lesions and that will result in unnecessary surgical procedures,” he says.

Rhebe Greenwald, a 65-year-old retired art director and systems analyst from Port Townsend, Wash., has experienced this firsthand.

“I’ve never felt breast self-exams were that useful for me,” she says. “I’m extremely lumpy and I’ve had three benign tumors removed that were all found through self-exams. The last time, they removed about a quarter of the tissue in my breast and found nothing.”

But others, like Dianne Pomon, a 59-year-old registered nurse and breast cancer survivor from Pottstown, Pa., swear by the BSE.

“I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer three times and found the lumps myself every time,” she says. “I would strongly encourage women to check themselves every month.”

What's a woman to do?
What’s a woman to do? It all depends on your age and family history, says Thomas.

“Women in their 20s and 30s rarely get breast cancer,” he says. “But they do have a lot more benign lumps and bumps. It’s not worth emphasizing breast self-exams for women at this age.”

As we get older, though, the benign lumps tend to go away and the breast cancer risk goes up.

“When women are in their 40s, it’s a good time for them to become more aware of their breasts and more aware of changes that might be due to breast cancer,” he says. “It’s kind of controversial as to whether it’s worth the screening — either BSEs or mammograms — but they can do both if they want.”

After age 50, though, an annual mammogram is a proven lifesaver, he says, reducing the risk of breast cancer death by about 30 percent to 40 percent. And women who know they’re at high risk for breast cancer may be able to enhance the benefit of mammograms with diligent BSEs between screenings.

As for me, while I'm relieved to scratch breast self-exams from my to-do list for good, I’ve got no problem putting my girls into the hands of true professionals. I’m heading for the local breast health care center for my annual mammogram. It’s time.

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer, regular contributor to and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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