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Doing a monthly breast self-exam is the best way to stay familiar with the cyclical changes in your breasts. These are actually changes that happen in your breasts much of the time.
There will always be variations, but the key to learning about your breasts is to understand how they change.
We hope this article provides you with some information on what’s normal, healthy, and how you can benefit from monitoring your breast health.
The Purpose of Breast Self-Exam
You will get to know the territory better than your health care team and will spot changes easily. Having an annual clinical exam helps document your breast health, so keep a regular appointment set up for that! Between puberty and menopause, your breasts will go through many changes, which are affected by hormones, diet, and exercise.
These changes can be very uncomfortable for some women. With age, your breasts may gain excess weight and lose the shape. Your breasts may shrink back down or sag by the time you are 40.
Menopause can also lead to changes in the shape and size of your breasts, as well as changes in the density of the tissue and in the sensitivity of the muscles. You might feel extra sensitivity in your breasts during breastfeeding. This can mean that the breast tissue feels tender and painful. You might also experience pain when you touch your breast.
Most of these changes are natural and healthy!
Your breast self-exam can provide you with information about your breast health and what to expect at the annual clinical exam.
Keep in mind that more information about breast self-exams, methods of examination, and other pieces of advice can also be obtained from a brochure that you can get from your regional medical center.
In addition, look for signs of changes in breast structure that indicate important changes in breast health.
These changes may include, but are not limited to:
- increased, or reduced volume of breast tissue,
- nipple atrophy (reduction in size),
- reduced nipple thickness,
- increased nipple depth,
- change in breast texture/stiffness,
- increased or decreased nipple prominence (areola),
- reduced or increased nipple weight,
- diminished stretch marks,
- erythema (redness) on the breast.
Breast Self-Exam in Teen Years
In the teen years, with the start of your monthly cycle, your body enters the maturing process, you may notice skin changes (such as acne) and even hair may change color or texture.
Breast tissue is developing during this time too, and maybe dense and firm to begin with, especially if you are small-breasted.
At this stage, it’s not too early to know your family’s health history, so ask your female relatives (mother, aunts, grandmother) if they had any fibrocystic problems with their breasts or any regular cysts. If so, it’s likely that you may experience those too.
Not to worry – cysts are benign – but you want to know where they are, and if they come and go, so they can be distinguished from other features in your breasts.’
Some girls might be too shy to talk about these things with their relatives; in this case, it’s a good idea for a mother to initiate this conversation and discuss all option with her daughter.
You will not notice breast pain at this stage, but your breasts will be still sensitive. When the breasts begin to grow, you may notice a fine, soft tissue or a hard lump. This is where the breast buds are formed.
Keep checking your breasts daily, beginning when you notice breasts and slowly progressing as they grow. Take note of every change in size and development.
Check your nipples and areola each week. Observe your breasts for changes each time you take a shower. To ensure the best results, if, at all possible, it is best to check and analyze daily. Visit a doctor with the results of your check-ups and discuss what you may need. If you are at high risk for breast diseases, you will need to do a mammogram.
Breast Self-Exam in Childbearing Years
After your body is prepared for motherhood, if you conceive and bear children, and also if you breastfeed the children, that will bring on more changes in your breasts, as well as in the rest of your body.
Breasts may become larger and more tender during pregnancy and may need more support.
What are some things you can do to improve breast health during pregnancy and while breastfeeding? To be safe, do your research and make sure you are prepared to breastfeed. If you’re in good shape, don’t perform surgery on your breasts unless it is necessary. This is because surgery may affect your ability to breastfeed or cause other complications.
Don’t neglect your breast self-exam during this time, stay familiar with the changes. Remember that pregnancy and breastfeeding will help combine to lower your risk of breast cancer.
Breast health after pregnancy
You will need to pay much more attention to your breast health after pregnancy. Your breast usually becomes more sensitive and susceptible to environmental changes than it was before. Your genetics and diet now play a bigger role in your breast health.
Ensure your breasts are being properly taken care of especially when it comes to cleansing and breast skin care.
Routine screening for early breast cancer, as well as the weekly breast self-exam, may be helpful. Talk with your health care provider about your own risk for breast cancer.
Possible benefits of annual breast cancer screening include increasing the chance that cancer is detected early, allowing early treatment, saving lives and improving overall health.
Breast Self-Exam in Maturity Years
Menopause also brings changes in your breasts, as your estrogen and progesterone levels drop, your breast tissue may become less firm and may drape differently than during your teen and child-bearing years.
You may also experience a loss of breast size and shape, as your body adjusts to its new age.
In addition, your sex drive and libido-related symptoms may also change. While all of these changes will put extra stress on your relationship with your partner, their support will remain essential as well.
Regardless of whether you experience any of these symptoms or not, they are very common, and many women notice these changes in their breasts. There are many causes of these changes in breasts.
Menopause and breast changes
There are three most known ways of how menopause can affect your breasts:
- First, most women experience a decrease in breast size.
- Second, some women go through the process of breast sagging.
- And third, about one-quarter of women experience a permanent decrease in breast sensitivity.
Keep up with your breast self-exams in these years too, so that the normal changes are familiar to you.
These can vary considerably, so be sure to ask your provider to discuss them with you. Reviewing your results can be very helpful in figuring out if you’re past your menopausal breast changes.
Less dense breast tissue will seem to have more lumps and bumps, but remember that 90% of breast lumps are benign.
Importance of Breast Self-Exams
There’s an increasing understanding that a large number of cancers are ‘recurrent’ (and these can be much more aggressive). Moreover, different women may develop a very different pattern of breast cancer.
It’s important to also remember that not all breasts are the same. They are created in different ways, and the way those breasts develop in adulthood has some influence on the risk for developing breast cancer later in life.
Performing a breast self-exam every month is important for two reasons.
- It reduces the risk of breast cancer as well as breast cancer recurrence, and
- It may provide the “road map” that can lead women to improve their overall health and look more attractive.
Women of every age should have breast self-exams and note all abnormal changes in their breasts.
Charlie Goldberg, M.D., the lead author of the systematic breast exams guide, noted that this is important because “breast problems are common in every age”.
How Breast Screening Prevents Cancer
In countries with high breast cancer mortality rates – including the US – there are indications that annual breast cancer screening has led to a decrease in the death rate from breast cancer.
For example, in the US, the death rate has fallen from 31.2 per 100,000 women per year in 1979 to 19.9 per 100,000 women per year in 2017 – a decrease of approximately 36 percent.
Screening tests have also been shown to reduce the rate of breast cancer recurrence. For example, in Finland, the breast cancer death rate fell by 56.2 percent following the introduction of breast cancer screening for women younger than 50 years.
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Dr. Jerry K is the founder and CEO of YourWebDoc.com, part of a team of more than 30 experts. Dr. Jerry K is not a medical doctor but holds a degree of Doctor of Psychology; he specializes in family medicine and sexual health products. During the last ten years Dr. Jerry K has authored a lot of health blogs and a number of books on nutrition and sexual health.