Clinical breast exam (CBE)

A clinical breast exam (CBE) is a physical exam of the breasts and the underarm area by a trained healthcare professional.

Why a CBE is done

If you tell your doctor about a lump or change in your breasts, you may have a CBE. Your doctor or another trained healthcare professional may also do it as part of your regular physical exam.

Men who find a lump or a change in their breasts should also have a CBE.

How a CBE is done

You don’t need to do anything special to prepare for a CBE. The same CBE technique is used for women with breast implants. You will remove your clothing from the waist up. A sheet or gown covers you while you’re on the examination table.

First the healthcare professional looks at the breasts. This should be done with you sitting, and then when you are lying down. The healthcare professional looks for:

  • changes or differences in the shape of the breasts
  • areas of fullness or thickness in only one breast
  • differences in skin colour, temperature and texture in the breasts, such as redness, increased warmth or dimpling of the skin
  • rashes
  • visible lumps or swelling
  • fluid, or discharge, leaking from the nipple
  • nipple changes, such as a nipple starting to point inward (called inverted) or scaling

Next the healthcare professional feels, or palpates, the breasts and the nipples. This is done with you lying down, which flattens the breast tissue over the chest wall. Breast tissue covers a large area. It goes from the middle of the chest into the armpit and up toward the collarbone and deep inside to the muscles of the chest wall. The healthcare professional will examine the entire area and will need to use some pressure to get at the deeper tissue.

The healthcare professional uses firm pressure with their fingers to feel for:

  • lumps, including their size, shape and whether or not they move within the tissue
  • hardening or thickening in the breast tissue
  • tenderness or pain

The healthcare professional will also feel lymph nodes in the underarm area (called the axilla) and in the area above and below the collarbone for any lumps or hardening.

What happens if a change or abnormality is found

The healthcare professional will talk to you about anything that is found and let you know if you need to have more tests.

Expert review and references

  • Foxson SB, Lattimer JG & Felder B . Breast cancer. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 48: pp. 1091-1145.
  • Goldberg C. Practical Guide to Clinical Medicine: Breast Examination. 2009:
  • Mills S . Performing a clinical breast exam. Nursing. 2013.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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