The practice of regularly self-examining to check for breast lumps or other possible signs of breast cancer may not actually reduce the number of deaths from the disease, researchers in Denmark have said.
The latest review, which is published in the Cochrane Library, supports the findings of previous research. However, Cancer Research UK emphasised the importance of being breast-aware, and that women should ensure that they are familiar with how their breasts look and feel normally at different times of the month.
Researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Centre reviewed two large studies involving 388,535 women in Russia and China.
They found that far more breast biopsies were performed on women who self-examined than in women who did not – 3,406 compared with 1,856.
However, rates of mastectomy and breast-conserving surgery did not differ greatly between the two groups, indicating that self-examination did not lead to any additional diagnoses of cancer.
There was also no significant difference in the number of breast cancer deaths between the two groups.
Dr Jan Peter Kosters and Dr Peter Gotzsche concluded: “At present, screening by breast self-examination or physical examination [by a trained health worker] cannot be recommended.”
However, the researchers accepted that some women feel happier checking their breasts and said that these women should still visit their doctor if they detect any changes.
Carolyn Runowicz, director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the University of Connecticut Health Centre, agreed that women should continue to examine their breasts if they feel comfortable doing so.
She noted that over half of women detect their own breast masses and said: “I think what we are seeing is that women are familiar with their breast through breast self-exam and when there is a lump, they notice the difference.”
Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK’s head of cancer information nurses, said: “We have known for some time that routinely examining yourself each month for breast cancer isn’t beneficial, but it’s vitally important that this isn’t confused with being ‘breast aware’.
“Breast awareness encourages women to become familiar with how their breasts look and feel normally at different times of the month.
“It’s crucial that the results of this study aren’t misinterpreted because early detection of breast cancer increases the chances of it being treated successfully. Women who notice any changes to the look or feel of a breast should tell their doctor without delay.
“Attending the NHS breast cancer screening programme when invited is also important as research has shown that it saves lives.”