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Breast self-exams not effective

Scientists have claimed that, contrary to popular belief, self-examination does little to reduce deaths from breast cancer.

Current medical guidance from the Department of Health advises women to be "breast aware" by familiarising themselves with how their breasts feel in their normal state so that they notice any subsequent changes.

However, a new review of data relating to more than 380,000 women found no evidence that self-examinations for lumps or other changes reduced breast cancer deaths.

The practice may even be doing more harm than good, according to the scientists at the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, who found that women who self-examined had 3,406 biopsies, compared with 1,856 biopsies in the group that did not do the exams. There was no significant difference in the number of breast cancer deaths between the two groups.

But Maria Leadbeater, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, said: "We know that many cases of breast cancer are identified earlier because women have spotted and reported unusual changes in their breasts to their GP.

"Early detection of the disease can mean more effective treatment and the possibility of a better outcome.

"Prescriptive 'breast self-examination' as discussed by this data review, which suggests that women should rigidly check their breasts in a particular way at a particular time, has been largely discredited for many years in the UK as it was found to be unhelpful and discouraging.

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Department of Health

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Do you encourage your female patients to check their breasts? Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)

"Yes, always. I have two friends (both nurses) who discovered breast lumps that turned out to be malignant" - Susan Wood, Northamptonshire

"Yes, I still do encourage patients to be self-aware of their breasts, as I have also nursed a patient who just had a normal mammogram, and a week later found a lump by her partner with slight pluckering of her breast" - KC Song, Harrow

"Yes I do. It is essential to advise and teach female patients to do so. Prevention is better than cure. Does one wait for a lump or any changes of breast appearance to be found before seeking advice. It is ok for those wanting to abolish the practice, as they may well not yet found a problem - good for them. I am afraid I will continue to give the advice and encouragement. I do not consider a false alarm a reason for discontinuing the practice." - V Henry, London

"Yes, for all women undertaking a smear or attending for HRT."  - Mary Swinney,  Hebburn

"Yes, I do for all young and older female patients coming for NPM. Also reinforce to all other patients to look out for changes in nipple size, discharge, breast size, etc. It is good health education." - Sheba K, Barnet

"I encourage breast awareness and reporting of any noticed changes. This is not just about looking for lumps and bumps. Skin changes, changes in size and nipple discharge are also important." - Munchkin, East of England

"Yes I do, most commonly when I am doing other well woman checks such as smears." -  Helen Ellison, Hampshire

"Yes I do, and I believe that it helps the early detection of unusual changes in the breast." - Naana Limm, East Yorkshire