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    Breast cancer awareness: 4 easy ways to learn what’s normal for you and your boobs

    Updated 01 November 2023 |
    Published 22 October 2019
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by Dr. Carlie Thompson, Breast surgical oncologist and assistant professor, University of California, California, US
    Written by Alice Broster
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    Being aware of what your boobs look and feel like throughout your cycle can help you understand what’s normal for you and when something might be different.

    October marks breast cancer awareness month, and with doctors and organizations raising awareness by talking about what breast cancer is and how it’s diagnosed and treated, there’s no better time to learn how to spot what’s normal (and abnormal) for your boobs

    Your cycle and the symptoms you experience during it are pretty personal to you. No two people are the same. You might notice some changes to your boobs as the hormones estrogen and progesterone fluctuate. They might look and feel different at certain times. Getting familiar with what’s normal for you is a fundamental step in self-care and looking after your health. It’s called breast self-awareness

    Before we get into what breast self-awareness means, please remember that hearing the word “cancer” can be really scary. If you or someone you know has been affected by it, then it can also make it a tough topic to talk about. Try to be gentle with yourself. It’s also worth noting that as we have learned more about breast cancer, how to detect it earlier, and how to treat it better, breast cancer survival rates have increased significantly. 

    Here are some things to know about breast cancer, plus four easy ways to understand what’s normal for your boobs. 

    What is breast cancer? 

    You might have heard of breast cancer and know some of the signs of it but not be totally sure what it actually is. Like the rest of your body, your breasts are made up of cells. If these cells multiply very quickly, then they can form tumors. These abnormal cells might begin to grow in different parts of your breasts, including your: 

    • Lobules: These are the small sections within your breasts where milk is produced. 
    • Mammary or milk ducts: These are small tubes that carry milk from your lobules to your nipple. 

    While experts still aren’t totally sure what triggers your normal cells to grow rapidly and become cancerous, breast cancer has been linked to a few risk factors, including:

    While these factors have been linked to breast cancer, it’s really important to remember that there’s no one cause of breast cancer, and sometimes it isn’t caused by any of the risk factors mentioned above. In fact, it’s most likely to be caused by a combination of risk factors. If you’re ever worried or have questions about your risk of developing breast cancer, then the best thing to do is reach out to your doctor. They will be able to walk you through any signs and symptoms and support you. Similarly, knowing what’s normal for your body and building your breast self-awareness will help you spot changes early on. 

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    What is breast self-awareness? 

    You may have noticed that your boobs look and feel different at different points in your menstrual cycle and wondered if this is normal. We’ve all been there. As your hormone levels change just before your period starts, your boobs may feel swollen or tender. They might even feel lumpy. This can be alarming, but it’s actually a pretty common symptom of premenstrual syndrome

    If your boobs look different or have a different texture at different points in your cycle, it isn’t typically something to worry about. However, it can make it hard to spot when something might not be right. To tackle this in the past, experts have recommended that you check the way your boobs look and feel once a month at around the same time. However, this guidance has changed. Now it’s recommended that you get to know what’s typical for your boobs throughout the month by keeping an eye on changes more regularly and understanding what’s typical for you. This is what breast self-awareness is, and there are some really easy steps you can take.

    4 easy steps to improve your breast self-awareness 

    Getting to know what’s normal for you and your boobs sounds like a great idea, right? But you might be curious about what practical steps you can take to get more familiar with the natural changes that your body goes through in the month and how to spot when something might not be quite right. 

    Understanding some of the different signs of breast cancer can be very helpful in guiding you when you’re examining your breasts. However, it’s really important to remember that your boobs might look or feel different for lots of reasons. If you do notice a change, then you should speak to your health care provider. Here are four easy steps you can follow regularly: 

    Check the way your breasts look

    Get familiar with what your boobs look like throughout the month. Sometimes they may appear fuller or more swollen. Keep an eye out for a change in the way the skin on your breasts looks. If it appears dimpled, red, or inflamed then it’s a sign that you should speak to your doctor. Similarly, you might notice a change in the size or shape of your breasts, in which case you should speak to your health care provider. 

    Check your nipples

    While you’re looking at your breasts, don’t forget your nipples. Has the skin on your nipples changed at all? They might appear scaly, itchy, or dry. If you notice a change in the texture of your nipples then speak to your doctor. Also, keep an eye out for discharge from your nipples.

    Check the way your breasts feel

    Checking the way your boobs feel throughout the month can slip quite easily into your day. Try to be mindful of what they feel like at different times. Do they feel heavier than normal or swollen? You might notice that at some points in your cycle, they feel tender or lumpy. If you feel a lump or swelling, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for a second opinion.

    Don’t forget your armpits

    While you’re feeling for the way your boobs change throughout the month, don’t forget to check your armpits too. You read that right. You actually have breast tissue that extends into your armpit that can change and react to hormones in a similar way that your boobs do. It’s called axillary breast tissue

    As experts now recommend that you become aware of all of the changes to your breasts on a regular basis, you don’t need to set a calendar reminder to check your boobs once a month at the same time. Instead, it can be really helpful to build your awareness of what your breasts look and feel like at different times in your cycle

    If you notice any of the changes mentioned above, then the best thing to do is reach out to your doctor for a checkup. Our relationship with our body and our boobs can feel deeply personal, so speaking to a health care professional about changes in your breasts might feel daunting, but it’s really important to get checked.

    How is breast cancer diagnosed?

    If you do notice some changes in your boobs, then your doctor might suggest the following steps to figure out what’s going on.

    A breast exam

    After talking to you about any symptoms you might have noticed, your doctor may look at and feel your breasts to check for any signs of breast cancer. They should talk you through this exam before it happens so you know exactly what to expect. If you’d feel more comfortable with a loved one present, you can also ask them to come into the doctor’s office with you. 

    A mammogram 

    This is a special X-ray of your breasts. You’ll remove your top and place one breast on a plastic plate. Another plate will then press down on your breast from above, and an X-ray picture will be taken. 

    A breast ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 

    Your doctor may recommend a breast ultrasound or MRI scan. These are two different ways of scanning (getting an image) of your breasts to check for breast cancer. You may have an MRI scan alongside a mammogram to pick up on any smaller abnormalities or lesions. This may be recommended to you if you have some of the risks linked with breast cancer. 

    A biopsy 

    If your mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI picked up signs of abnormal cells, then your doctor may recommend that you get a biopsy. This might sound scary, but your doctor should walk you through every step of the procedure. It can take between 20 minutes and an hour, and might be done after you’ve had a mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI. Your health care provider will remove a small piece of breast tissue. They will then send it off to a lab to be examined. 

    How is breast cancer treated?  

    Treatment for breast cancer has progressed significantly over the last 50 years, meaning there are more treatment options than ever. Like any treatment plan, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Your doctor will talk you through your options to establish what would be best for you. They’ll consider the type of breast cancer you have, how much it’s spread, and if it’s sensitive to hormones. Some treatments for breast cancer include: 

    No matter how advanced treatment has gotten, getting a cancer diagnosis can be incredibly difficult, and finding the right treatment plan for you may feel totally overwhelming. Speak to your doctor or multiple doctors to get all the information you need. If you can, talk to other people who have made a similar decision and take all of the time you need. You’re not alone in making this decision, and there’s plenty of support available. 

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    History of updates

    Current version (01 November 2023)

    Reviewed by Dr. Carlie Thompson, Breast surgical oncologist and assistant professor, University of California, California, US
    Written by Alice Broster

    Published (22 October 2019)

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