Health Watch: Self Breast Exams May Not be Best

It's been taught, and promoted. But what if the decades of advice telling women to check their breasts each month for suspicious lumps was wrong? That's the troubling, confusing conclusion of a new and controversial study. "After a lot of careful evaluation and study, the routine practice of BSE has not demonstrated benefits we hoped for," Dr. John Feightner with the Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health. The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewed studies over three decades from around the world. The overwhelming conclusion: studies have failed to show a benefit for teaching or practicing regular breast self examination. It didn't help women find tumors sooner and didn't improve their rate of death. What's more, self exams were linked to harm. Women were more likely to find benign lumps that lead to more unnecessary surgery and anxiety, according to the study. That's why the Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health no longer recommends breast self examination. "The issue here is that it seems to cause harm...and that's why we're recommending against it. Because if you have no evidence it works, and evidence it harms, it's something you can't advocate," says the study's author, Dr. Nancy Baxter. Those conclusions are a blow, however, to Feather Janz. She, like many women, found her tumor through self exam. Now a six year survivor, she motivates women to do the same. "I am living proof that early detection saves lives. And I am determined to make sure other women are as empowered to take their own lives into their own hands," Janz says. Some breast cancer groups say they won't stop promoting self exams. "If we say to women, O.K. you don't have to do it anymore...where does it leave women thinking they can take care of their own health?" asks Elaine Fogel with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. But the research shows less than 50 percent of women do regular breast exams; and those who do, don't do the test properly. Still researchers say that if women want to continue self examination, they should learn to do it properly and know most of the lumps they find will not be cancerous.