Breast self-examination (BSE) continues to be widely promoted by Government agencies and medical practitioners in Europe and the United States. Point 10 of the European Code Against Cancer exhorts women to 'examine their breasts regularly'. Breast lumps are common and most women will detect a breast abnormality at some time in their life, irrespective of the promotion of BSE by the medical profession. It should be possible to increase a woman's ability to deal better with this anxiety-provoking situation, and to reduce the number of women presenting with locally advanced disease, by appropriate health education. But this does not mean that BSE should be promoted as a screening test for cancer, with the consequent emphasis on vigilance and early self-referral. The natural course of breast cancer is not completely understood. Although stage at diagnosis is related to survival, and mammographic screening trials suggest that early diagnosis (often before a lump is palpable) can lead to effective treatment which prolongs life, earlier treatment of a palpable lump detected by BSE is not guaranteed to improve survival. © 1991 The British Council.