In 2012, 1.6 million women worldwide were diagnosed with breast cancer. In America, about 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Although these statistics may be chilling, there are many things you can do to decrease your risk of developing breast cancer. Along with maintaining a healthy lifestyle (eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly and limiting alcohol consumption), it is important to get screened on a regular basis. Mammograms are important because they can find a lump in its earliest stages, before you can even feel it. “By the time you can feel it, it’s actually pretty far along,” said Brown. The earlier the tumor is found, the better your chances of survival, she said.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women get an annual mammogram starting at the age of 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women get a biannual mammogram starting at the age of 50. Your doctor can help you determine when you should begin screening, based on your lifestyle, family history and any other health issues.
In addition, women in their 20s and 30s should get a clinical breast exam by a health professional every three years and should perform a breast self-exam monthly after their period, according to the National Cancer Institute. If you notice a lump in the breast that feels like a pea or a bean, talk to your doctor.
“You need to be really familiar with your tissue — that way if something changes you’ll be aware of it,” said Brown.
In addition to genetics and diet, many lifestyle choices (like drinking alcohol or lack of exercise) can contribute to your risk of breast cancer — but choosing to wear a bra isn’t one of them. In the mid 90s, two anthropologists wrote a book called Dressed to Kill, which claimed that wearing a tight bra each day increased your risk of breast cancer by preventing lymphatic drainage, trapping harmful toxins in the breast tissue. The American Cancer Society refutes this claim, saying that the study was not conducted according to the standard principles of research and failed to consider other variables, including other known breast cancer risk factors. Your best fight against breast cancer is to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and get regular clinical breast exams and annual mammograms — no need to throw away those bras just yet.
In the early 1900s, New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob patented the first brassiere. At that time, the only socially-acceptable undergarment for women was a corset, which is a tight fitting (and often very uncomfortable!) undergarment that accentuates a woman’s hips and chest by forcing an hourglass shape. For a social event, Mary bought a sheer evening gown and found that the whalebone in the corset was visible under her plunging neckline. Using two silk handkerchiefs to cover her bosom and some pink ribbon to hold it together, an alternative to the corset was born!
In the last two centuries, bra styles have evolved dramatically (strapless, sports, push-up, multi-way — you name it!), and the undergarment’s popularity has skyrocketed: According to Consumer Reports, women spend $9 billion a year on bras!
Good news for moms who breastfeed: research has shown that breastfeeding does not significantly contribute to sagging (ptosis). So what can cause your boobs to loose their perk? The number of pregnancies you’ve had. During pregnancy, the Cooper’s ligaments (the connective tissue that naturally supports your breasts by suspending them to your chest) and the surrounding skin may stretch as your breasts get larger (from the hormone changes, swelling and fluid retention that occurs during pregnancy). After pregnancy, your breasts return to their normal size, but the skin may still be stretched out. If you have more than one pregnancy, the sagging may become more noticeable, especially if your breasts are naturally large.
Other factors that can contribute to sagging including aging (as you age elastin, or the protein that gives your skin its youthful look, naturally breaks down) and cigarette smoking (the chemicals in cigarette smoke speed up the breakdown of elastin).
Does your bra feel a little bit fuller around the time of your period? Your hormones may be the ones to blame — or thank! In the week leading up to and during your menstrual cycle, the levels of estrogen and progesterone in your body peak, causing your breast ducts and milk glands to get bigger. You may notice other changes to your breasts as well. Your breast tissue may feel rough to the touch, and your breasts may feel painful or tender around the time of your monthly flow. These changes are all normal. However, if you’re feeling significant pain that seems out of the ordinary, or you notice any new lumps in either breast, talk to your doctor.
A supernumerary nipple, also known as an extra nipple, is a real and fairly common condition. These nipples are usually found below the normal nipples along the “milk lines,” which is a not-so-straight line that runs from your armpit through the breast nipples to the groin. It is possible, however, for them to grow on other areas of the body (like on your feet or even your face!). In some cases, they can even develop breast tissue. Although they are called “extra nipples,” they are not recognized as actual nipples because they are small and not well formed.
So are they dangerous? Most likely not. In rare cases, extra nipples have been linked to kidney disease and heart defects. If the nipple is accompanied by breast tissue, it is vulnerable to the same diseases that can affect standard breast tissue, like breast cancer. If you have an extra nipple (especially with breast tissue), it is important to get evaluated by your doctor. You can also have it surgically removed, like a mole, if it bothers you.
It’s normal to secrete a watery, milky looking substance when you have a bun in the oven or are nursing — both pregnancy and breastfeeding elevate the amount of prolactin (the hormone responsible for milk production) in your body. For women who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding, the sight of nipple discharge may seem like cause for alarm, but there’s often no need to panic. Most cases of nipple discharge are benign or the sign of a minor condition, like an infection or galactorrhea (a condition in which a woman’s breasts secrete milk even though she is not breastfeeding). However, if the discharged liquid is bloody or secretes from only one breast, it could signal something more serious. The color of the discharge isn’t the best indicator of whether it’s normal or abnormal, so if you notice any clear, yellow, green, white or bloody substance secreting from your nipples, it’s important to be evaluated by your doctor.
Published December 10, 2012.
Brittany Doohan is a health and lifestyle writer living in San Francisco.