A clinical breast exam (CBE) is a physical exam done by a health care provider as part of your regular medical check-up.
A CBE should be performed by a health care provider well trained in the technique (this may be a physician, nurse practitioner or other medical staff). Not all providers have this training.
Your provider should carefully feel your breasts and underarm for any changes or abnormalities (such as a lump). He/she should visually check your breasts while you are sitting up and physically examine your breasts while you are lying down.
If a CBE is not offered at your check-up and you would like one, ask your provider if he or she can perform one (or refer you to someone who can).
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society do not recommend CBE for breast cancer screening [13,105]. However the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends women start CBE at age 25 and continue after they begin having mammograms .
For most women, a clinical breast exam will find no signs of breast cancer. If your exam does find something abnormal, you will need follow-up tests to check whether or not the finding is breast cancer.
Learn about follow-up after an abnormal clinical breast exam.
In women younger than 40 (for whom mammography is not recommended), CBE can be helpful in finding breast cancer.
In women ages 40 and older, CBE combined with mammography may find more breast cancers than mammography alone. When used together at yearly check-ups, fewer breast cancers are missed [37,40]. However, CBE is not a substitute for mammograms in women 40 and older.
Not all health organizations recommend CBE as part of routine breast cancer screening due to some of its drawbacks. One downside is the increased chance of false positive results that require follow-up tests . False positives occur when a CBE finds something that looks or feels like cancer, but turns out to be benign (not cancer). One large study found the chance of having a false positive result after 10 yearly CBE was about 20 percent .
Getting a false positive result can cause fear and worry . However, the goal of clinical breast exams is to find as many cancers as possible, not to avoid false positive results.
Figure 3.1 lists the breast cancer screening recommendations from some major health organizations.
Facts for Life: Breast Cancer Detection