Keeping Your Breasts Healthy

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How can I take care of my breasts?

Breasts can change many times and in many ways over a woman's lifetime, and even within a given month. Your breasts may nourish children, provide sexual pleasure, and 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, nutrition and aging. Some women experience a natural growth and fluid retention during the menstrual cycle that may be painful. With time, breasts tend to sag a bit more, especially after milestone changes in hormones, such as breastfeeding and menopause.

Breasts make women mammals, and it is for that reason that the glands that make up the breast are called mammary glands. These glands produce milk for breastfeeding and are also an important part of sexual life. 

It’s often difficult for women to recognize what “normal” breasts are, with strong social pressures to favour some types of breasts over others. Our perceptions are influenced by how breasts are used in advertising to promote the sale of some products and by the widespread promotion of breast implants in western culture. It is especially confusing that some “pink” products promoting donations to breast cancer research may actually be known causes of breast or other cancers themselves.

It’s helpful to get to know what “normal” is to you by feeling your breasts or looking in a mirror. Some women take advantage of the time they’re in the bath or shower to notice changes in their breasts.

What can I do to have healthy breasts?

You can make healthy 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 lots 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 may contain relatively high amounts of caffeine and sugar. 

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 and do not wear them to bed.

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

Medical opinion on breast self-exams has changed in recent years. Now, most health care providers do not recommend doing them monthly as a way to find lumps that could be cancerous. 

However, it is still good to get to know your breasts so that you’ll notice if they are changing. Recognizing changes in your breast may also help you notice other changes in your body. If you do notice changes in your breast(s) or other parts of your body, tell your health care provider on your next visit or schedule a visit to discuss it specifically. 

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 health care provider when you find a lump or have pain, this does not necessarily mean that you have a disease. Most breast lumps are not cancerous, especially in women under 40. Many things, including hormonal changes, can cause breast pain. In fact, even when cancerous lumps are found through breast cancer screening, it’s possible that they never would have caused problems even if untreated because they sometimes grow slowly. The important thing is to try not to panic and let someone you care about know what you are going through.

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 your health care provider 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?

After a physical exam, some health care providers may recommend that you get a mammogram or ultrasound of your breast tissue. Mammograms x-ray the breast and can detect a tumour long before it can be felt by hand. 

The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care recommends routine screening every 2-3 years for women between 50 and 69 who are considered average risk. To be clear, this recommendation is for women who have no apparent reasons to be concerned. They also recommended that health care providers should discuss the pros and cons of mammography and allow women to make choices for themselves.

Women who have other risk factors are not considered average risk and their health care provider may recommend regular screening even if they are not 50 to 69. According to Health Canada, “If you have a family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter), or have had a breast biopsy that showed abnormal cells, this may indicate an increased susceptibility to breast cancer.”

Depending on your province, eligibility for mammography screening is different. If there is cause for concern, your health care provider can help you get a referral for mammography screening. 

Where can I go for more information?

This FAQ may provide medical information, but is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. When you have questions about your health, it is always advisable to ask a health care practitioner.

Revised March 2013.