Every woman's breasts are unique. And many women notice changes in their breasts throughout their lives. While sometimes these changes are a cause for concern, most breast changes don't mean cancer or other problems. Still, it's important to know how your breasts normally look and feel. If you know them well, you'll be more likely to spot a potential problem early.
Your breasts are made up of different types of tissue — glandular, connective and fatty. Glandular tissue is made up of sections called lobes. Each lobe is divided into smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in tiny bulbs that can produce milk.
Thin tubes called ducts connect the lobes and lobules. These ducts can carry milk. Connective tissue binds the lobules together while fatty tissue surrounds the lobules and ducts.
Your breasts also contain blood vessels and lymph vessels. Lymph fluid travels in the lymph vessels to lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures that filter lymph fluid and store white blood cells to help fight disease and infection.
Getting to know your breasts
Now that you know what your breasts are like on the inside, take some time to note what they look like and feel like on the outside. This is called breast self-awareness. It's what the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests for all women over the age of 20.
Breast self-awareness is not the same as a breast self-exam, which is no longer recommended. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) decided there was not enough evidence to show that breast self-exams helped find breast cancer.
Practicing breast self-awareness simply means you stay aware of how your breasts normally look and feel. You don't need to examine them in any specific way or at any certain time of the month. You just need to know what is normal for your breasts. Then you can tell if there are any changes in your breasts that don't feel or look normal.
Breast changes to pay attention to
If you notice any of these changes in your breasts, you should see your doctor:
- A lump in or near the breast or under your arm
- Dimples, puckers, itching, redness or scaling in the breast skin
- A nipple that turns in instead of sticking out
- Discharge from the nipple (other than milk)
- A change in the size or shape of a breast
Factors that contribute to breast changes
If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts and you've made an appointment to see your doctor, don't panic while you're waiting for that appointment. Most breast changes are not cancer. There are many reasons due to hormones and the normal aging process that can explain why you may notice changes in your breasts. They include:
- Menstrual periods. Your breasts may feel tender, painful or swollen before or during your period. You might also notice one or more lumps in your breasts. Normally, these changes should go away at the end of your cycle.
- Pregnancy. You may feel fullness in your breasts during pregnancy. Usually this is because the glands producing milk are getting bigger and increasing in number.
- Breastfeeding. Mastitis, or when a milk duct becomes blocked, can happen while breastfeeding. It may be caused by an infection and can often be treated with antibiotics. It can cause your breast to look red and feel lumpy, tender and warm.
- Menopause. Before menopause (when your menstrual periods stop), your breasts may feel lumpy and tender due to hormone changes. Usually, women no longer experience these breast changes once hormone levels drop, but remember to report ANY lump to your doctor.
- If you are taking hormones. Birth control pills or injections and menopausal hormone therapy may make your breasts denser.
Still, you should always tell your doctor about any changes you notice in your breasts, just to be safe.
Don't miss mammograms
If you're worried about cancer, don't forget that mammograms, or X-rays of the breasts, are the best way to find breast cancer early. And finding breast cancer early means you will have the best chance of being treated successfully.
The USPSTF recommends women ages 50 to 74 get a mammogram every two years. Women under 50 who have a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors should consult with their doctor to see if a mammogram and/or additional screening is appropriate for them.
Created on 06/08/1999
Updated on 08/26/2013
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer. Screening.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Screening for breast problems.
- National Cancer Institute. Understanding breast changes: A health guide for women.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for breast cancer.