Keeping Your Breasts Healthy

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How can I take care of my breasts?

Breasts change many times and in many ways over a woman's lifetime. Your breasts may nourish children, be a source of sexual pleasure, and may form part of your identity. Getting to know how your breasts normally feel and look is the first step towards promoting good breast health.

What are "normal" breasts?

Breasts, like women's bodies, come in all shapes and sizes. Their tissue is varied, they change as you age, and the left one may not look the same as the right. One breast may grow faster or larger than the other. How your breasts feel and look can be affected by many things including your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and aging.

What can I do to have healthy breasts?

You can make lifestyle choices to improve your general health that will also benefit your breasts. These include:

  • being active and/or exercising regularly;
  • eating a variety of low-fat, high-fibre and whole grain foods;
  • eating at least 5 servings of dark green, orange and red vegetables and fruits daily;
  • washing your fruits and vegetables, or buying organic produce to reduce your exposure to potentially toxic chemicals;
  • eating foods daily that are high in phytoestrogens (plant estrogens or isoflavones) such as soy, lentils and grains–these foods have been linked in some studies to breast cancer prevention;
  • not smoking;
  • limiting the amount of alcohol you drink; and
  • limiting the caffeine you drink or eat–coffee, tea, chocolate, cola and some other soft drinks contain relatively high amounts of caffeine.

In addition to these lifestyle choices, you may choose to:

  • Get to know what your breasts feel like so that you'll know what is normal for you, and will recognize any changes that happen.
  • If you wear bras, wear comfortable loose-fitting bras.
  • learn the best way to examine your own breasts.

Do I need to do Breast Self-Exams (BSEs)?

A 2001 study generated a great deal of debate about whether or not it is worthwhile for women to perform Breast Self Exams (BSEs). While the experts still do not all agree on whether BSE should be taught to women, the major medical organizations, such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Network still encourage women to do a regular BSE.

Whether or not you choose to examine your own breasts, it is important to have a doctor or nurse trained in Clinical Breast Examination examine your breasts thoroughly once a year for any changes to your breasts.

If I have a lump or other changes in my breast, should I see my doctor?

Some women are alarmed when they feel lumps or have pain in their breasts. While you should check with your doctor when you find a lump or have pain, this does not necessarily mean that you have a disease. Most breast lumps are not cancerous. Many things, including hormonal changes, can cause breast pain.

Many women have breast lumpiness or fibrocystic breasts. This can be caused by cysts (tissue sacs filled with liquid) and scarring of breast tissue. There is no known link between this and breast cancer.

However, it is important to see you doctor if you notice any of the following changes in your breasts:

  • a lump or thickening;
  • unusual increase in the size of one breast;
  • discharge from your nipples staining your bra, clothes or bedclothes; and
  • skin changes, including any changes to a nipple.

Should I have a mammogram?

Mammograms x-ray the breast and can detect a tumour long before it can be felt by hand. As a screening tool, they are mostly used for women 50-69 years old, but there are different opinions about how effective they are for white and Asian women under 50.

Mammography is a highly controversial area. There have been studies recently that studies that show that mammograms are not effective at preventing deaths from breast cancer. However, other studies show they are effective.

Health Canada recommends that women between the ages of 40 and 69 have mammograms every 1-2 years. For women at high risk of breast cancer, mammograms are recommended for women aged 40-49. Mammograms are not typically recommended for women under 40. If you are concerned about whether or not to have a mammogram, discuss this issue with your doctor.

Where can I go for more information?