In October of my freshman year of college, a women’s group on campus made pink shirts that had two painted handprints on the chest, along with the slogan, “Feel Your Breasts.” They were cute. They were cheeky. They were provocative, in a body-positive way. They were also, sadly, unnecessary.
Regular breast self-exams feel, for many women, like one of those things we should be doing but always seem to forget, like signing up for Mint or finally sending those thank-you notes. Since the 1970s, the message from the medical establishment had been clear: Every month, women should thoroughly palpate their breasts to check for tumors. There was a part of the exam you were supposed to do in the shower, and another that you had to do lying down. You were not supposed to giggle; it was for your health.
But actually, everyone from cancer specialists to gynecologists to the advocacy group Susan G. Komen no longer recommends breast self-exams. They haven’t since the early 2000s.
Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer among American women, and early detection is still a key way to reduce the risk of death. But in 1997, a big, randomized trial of Chinese women found that those who performed regular breast self-exams had the same chance of getting and dying from breast cancer as those who didn’t. Instead, the self-examining women found more benign growths, the removal of which carries its own risks. A Russian study from the late 1980s had yielded similar mortality results.