The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Clinical Breast Exam

What is a clinical breast exam?

A clinical breast exam (CBE) is a physical exam of your breasts done by a health care provider. It’s often done during your yearly medical check-up.

A clinical breast exam should be performed by a health care provider well-trained in the technique. This may be a doctor, nurse practitioner or other medical staff. Not all health care providers have this training.

A trained health care provider should carefully feel your breasts, underarms and the area just below your clavicle (collar bone) for any changes or abnormalities, such as a lump. The provider should visually check your breasts while you are sitting up and physically examine your breasts while you are lying down.

If a clinical breast exam isn’t offered at your check-up and you‘d like one, ask your health care provider to perform one (or refer you to someone who can).

CBE - images (sitting and lying down)

Sources for images: National Cancer Institute and Susan G. Komen® 

Clinical breast exam screening recommendations

Figure 3.1 lists breast cancer screening recommendations from some major health organizations.

The NCCN recommends women start clinical breast exam at age 25 and continue after they begin having mammograms [9].

However, the American Cancer Society doesn’t recommend clinical breast exam for breast cancer screening [8]. And the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force feels there’s not enough scientific evidence to recommend for or against clinical breast exam [11].

Follow-up after an abnormal clinical breast exam

For most women, a clinical breast exam will find no signs of breast cancer.

If your exam does find something abnormal, you’ll need follow-up tests to check whether or not the finding is breast cancer.

Learn about follow-up after an abnormal clinical breast exam.

False positive results and clinical breast exam

False positive results occur when a clinical breast exam finds something that looks or feels like cancer but turns out not to be cancer.

Getting a false positive result leads to follow-up tests, and can cause fear and worry [24,38-39]. However, the goal of clinical breast exam is to find as many cancers as possible, not to avoid false positive results. 

Updated 09/07/23