Self-Exam Avoidance Linked to Breast-Size Issues, British Study Finds

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Critical self-perception plays a significant role in why women choose not to engage in breast self-examinations, an essential tool in breast cancer prevention.

That's the conclusion of a new study of British women, which found that dissatisfaction with breast appearance leads to an avoidance of self-exams, and consequently, a delay in seeking a medical evaluation. Researchers wrote that this dynamic tends to occur "because it involves exposing one’s physical and emotional self to others."

The research included 384 women, 75 percent of which reported being dissatisfied with their breast size. Roughly 44 percent wanted to be larger, while 31 percent wished to be smaller. Meanwhile, if they were to detect a change in their breast, just 55 percent of the study's women would either visit their doctor immediately or as soon as possible, leaving 45 percent of participants to delay or forgo medical consultation.

"For women who are dissatisfied with their breast size, having to inspect their breasts may be experienced as a threat to their body image and so they may engage in avoidance behaviours," said Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and the study's lead author. "Breast size dissatisfaction may also activate negative self-conscious emotions, such as shame and embarrassment, that results in avoiding breast self-examination."

This study had added urgency for British women, because past studies have shown that breast cancer patients in the United Kingdom tend to present with more advances cases, and compared to similarly-afflicted women in other parts of Europe, their survival rates are lower.

The breast self-examination (BSE) study, which was published in the journal Body Image, stated that "greater breast size dissatisfaction was significantly associated with less frequent BSE, lower confidence detecting a change in one’s breasts, and greater delay in seeing a doctor if a change in one’s breast was detected." In addition, the authors wrote that "greater confidence in detecting a change was also significantly associated with a shorter delay in consulting a doctor in the event of discovering a breast change."

While breast cancer is most common type of cancer among British women, it is the second leading cause of death in the U.K. as well as the United States. Roughly "41,000 women and 450 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Women who experience breast size dissatisfaction may be more likely to delay seeing a doctor following detection of breast change because it involves exposing one’s physical and emotional self to others," wrote researchers, pointing out that this negative perception was different than body-type dissatisfaction, which did not factor into self breast exam avoidance. And that avoidance was more pronounced, they added, with smaller-breasted women. "[T]he strength of the relationship between breast size dissatisfaction and delay in seeing a doctor was stronger in women who desired larger breasts than they currently had compared to women who desired smaller breasts."