Everything you need to know about healthy breasts

A comprehensive look at what are normal breast changes — and what needs medical attention.

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Photo, iStock.
Photo, iStock.

Call it a boob fetish, but we’re always thinking about our breasts — squeezing them into push-up bras against their will, agonizing over cup size in bathroom mirrors, keeping them from bouncing when we’re on the treadmill. We also worry about them. But the fact is, our breasts are constantly in flux, a function of fertility, hormones and other factors such as diet. And though breast cancer concerns are always at the back of our minds, there’s no need to stress. Breasts are completely unpredictable, but most changes are normal. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Your breasts are never static. Breasts fluctuate in size, shape and feel from month to month – the result of natural hormonal changes that occur as a woman’s body prepares for a possible pregnancy.

2. Breasts keep on growing. Though they technically stop growing when a woman is in her early 20s, weight gain, pregnancy and hormonal drugs – such as the pill – can enlarge breast size.

3. It can be normal to have lumpy boobs. Many women have breast tissue that feels like small ridges or marbles beneath the skin. It is suspected that this is because the breast’s many glands are being overstimulated by the increase in estrogen during the menstrual cycle: a benign condition referred to as fibrocystic change. Remember, not all lumps are breast cancer. If you find a firm, movable lump in your breast, there’s a high likelihood it’s a fibroadenoma (a benign fibrous lump) or a fluid-filled cyst: both harmless conditions. To be safe, all lumps should be checked out by a doctor to rule out cancer.

4. Breasts can swell. Although sudden swelling of a breast accompanied by heat, tenderness or itching could be a sign of mastitis (an inflammation of the breast common when breastfeeding) or very rarely inflammatory breast cancer, if the swelling occurs every month and occurs in both breasts, it is likely related to the hormonal ups and downs brought on by the menstrual cycle. In fact, breasts can go up a whole cup size. Check out any irregular swelling with your doctor.

5. Keep an eye on dense breasts. Women with breasts that have more fibrous and connecting tissue and less fatty tissue can have higher breast cancer rates. Dense tissue makes mammograms harder to read, making abnormalities easier to miss.

6. Tenderness is common. If your breasts feel sore – especially in the outer quadrants close to the underarm area – it’s likely a reflection of your menstrual cycle in which breast lobules enlarge and become painful. Fibrocystic breasts can become tender in any part of the breast.

7. Don’t sweat nipple bumps. Small, pimple-like nipple bumps are common — and harmless. Called Montgomery’s glands, they enlarge during pregnancy.

9. If you’re pregnant, your nipples will change. They will become noticeably darker and larger – nature’s way of pointing the future baby in the right direction.

10. Nipple discharge is common. This is especially true in women with a fibrocystic condition, says Dr. Sandra Messner, an expert in breast cancer prevention at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto. Normal discharge can be straw-coloured or brown, but see your doctor if there’s any blood.

11. Breastfeeding can yield surprises. It can lead to tender, chapped nipples and blocked milk ducts – which can show up as hard lumps in the breast and armpit area.

12. Watch lopsided breasts closely. Having one breast larger than the other is common. While the cancer link is yet unproven, a British study from 2006 has made the connection. Published in the journal Breast Cancer Researchthe study authors found that women with higher breast asymmetry were more likely to have a history of breast cancer.

13. Check your breasts when your period’s over. The best time to check your breasts for changes such as lumps or to visit the doctor for a yearly breast exam is in the week after your period.

14. Feed your breasts well. A low-fat diet high in vegetables and fruit coupled with leaner meats and dairy products is optimum for breast health, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.