Breasts, boobies, tatas, “the girls” – with society’s obsession with our bosoms, you’d think we’d know everything about them.
But surprisingly, beyond knowing all the different terms used to describe our mammaries, many of us know little to nothing about our breasts and how to take the best care of them.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s the perfect time to learn more about that region of our body that seems to fascinate us (and everyone else) so much.
What are Breasts?
Breasts are the tissues that cover the chest, or pectoral, muscles. These tissues include glandular, or milk-producing, tissue and fatty tissue, which determines whether they’re big or small.
Connective tissue and ligaments support the breasts and give them their shape. That circle around the nipple? It’s called the areola, and it comes in all colors and sizes, from small to large and from pink to dark brown.
The breasts also have blood vessels and vessels that carry colorless fluid called lymph. The lymph vessels lead to small bean-shaped structures called lymph nodes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone and in the chest.
11 Common Breast Conditions
Simple Breast Cyst. A benign, or noncancerous, fluid-filled sac that commonly develops in women in their 30s or 40s. Mostly a non-issue, they can sometimes cause tenderness and may be drained.
Breast Fibroadenoma. A very common noncancerous solid tumor of the breast that typically creates a painless, moveable lump in the breast. It most commonly affects women in their 20s or 30s.
Fibrocystic Breast Disease. A common condition in which noncancerous breast lumps may become uncomfortable and change in size throughout the menstrual cycle. In some, a breast biopsy may show normal-appearing, noncancerous ductal cells multiplying abnormally, and this may slightly increase a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer.
Atypical Hyperplasia of the Breast. Abnormal-appearing cells multiplying either in the breast ducts or lobules, sometimes discovered by a breast biopsy. Although noncancerous, women with atypical hyperplasia have a four to five times higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Intraductal Papilloma. A noncancerous, wart-like breast mass that grows inside the breast ducts. They can form as a lump or cause clear/bloody fluid to leak from the nipple.
Adenosis of the Breast. A noncancerous enlargement of the breast lobules.
Phyllodes Tumor. A rare, usually large, rapidly-growing breast tumor. Phyllodes tumors may be benign or malignant (cancerous) and most commonly affect women in their 40s.
Fat Necrosis. A lump of scar tissue that develops in the fatty tissue of the breast in response to an injury.
Mastitis. Inflammation of the breast, causing redness, pain, warmth, and swelling. Mothers who are breastfeeding are at higher risk for mastitis, which usually results from infection.
Breast Calcifications. Calcium deposits in the breast are a common finding on mammograms. The pattern of calcium might suggest cancer, leading to further tests or a biopsy.
Gynecomastia. Who says it’s just the ladies who have breast conditions? Here’s a shocker: all humans have breast tissue. Hormones in girls’ and women’s bodies stimulate the breast tissue to grow into full breasts beginning in puberty, but boys’ and men’s bodies don’t usually have as much of these hormones, causing their breast tissue to stay flat and small.
While some boys and men might seem to have smallish breasts, these “breasts” are usually just mounds of fat. But males sometimes can develop real breast gland tissue because they take certain medicines or have abnormal hormone levels.
What About Breast Cancer?
The breast condition most talked about and that evokes the greatest fear is breast cancer. Breast cancer occurs when malignant cancer cells multiply abnormally in the breast, eventually spreading to the rest of the body if untreated.
Breast cancer occurs almost exclusively in women, although men can be affected (less than 1% of all cases). Signs of breast cancer include a lump, bloody nipple discharge, or skin changes.
For an in-depth look, check out our post on Understanding Breast Cancer.
10 Ways to Keep Breasts Healthy
Everyone knows the best defense is a good offense, so live a healthy lifestyle to prevent disease with these tips:
Know your family history. Family history is a factor in 5-10% of breast cancer cases. One first-degree relative with breast cancer doubles your lifetime risk, and two increases your risk five times.
Get checked regularly. All women should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) at least every three years and annual exams and mammograms beginning at age 40. Women with a family history of breast cancer should begin screening 10 years prior to the family member’s age of diagnosis. Look for a facility that offers digital mammography which allows for adjustments in contrast so the image can be viewed more clearly. Young women at increased risk may also want to request an MRI or a sonogram as well.
Breastfeed. In addition to reducing the risk of breast cancer, breastfeeding can also help reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression.
Get to and maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can increase your risk of developing breast cancer and reduce your risk of surviving it. If you’re overweight or obese, start by losing at least 10% of your body weight. Just doing that will reduce your risk of a number of diseases, including cancer and hypertension.
Get moving. Engage in vigorous physical activity for 45 minutes to an hour, three to five days a week. Regular fitness workouts may help prevent diseases like breast cancer by boosting immune function, warding off obesity, and lowering levels of estrogen and insulin.
Don’t drink like a fish. Studies have shown that two drinks a day could increase breast cancer risk by 21%. Instead of vino, try drinking some grape juice instead. Resveratrol, a compound found in grape skins, may help reduce your estrogen levels and reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
Go green. Eating a lot of low-fat vegetables, especially raw cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and kale, can do wonders for your health. They contain sulforaphane, which is believed to help prevent cancer cells from multiplying.
Limit menopausal hormone use. Studies have found that estrogen plus progestin increases the risk of both developing and dying from breast cancer. When women take these hormones, their risk of having an abnormal mammogram increases within the first year of use. And, their risk of breast cancer increases within the first five years of use. So always discuss with your physician the risks and benefits involved with menopausal hormone therapy (MHT).
Think about getting tested. Getting tested is always a good thing! When young women develop breast cancer, it’s often associated with a BRCA1 of BRCA2 gene mutation. If you have a family history of both breast and ovarian cancer, or if you are of Ashkenazi (Eastern Eurpoean) Jewish descent, you are a carrier and should definitely consider getting genetic testing.
Keep your gut healthy. A recent study found that having greater microbial diversity in the gut promoted a more favorable ratio of estrogen metabolites, suggesting that a healthy gut with more communities of different bacteria could lower the risk of developing breast cancer.
The Fun Stuff
Learning about breasts doesn’t just include breast health – it includes breast appearance, too! Now that we’ve got the serious stuff covered, let’s talk about how we can support our breasts and make them look good.
Supporting our breasts means getting a good bra, but did you know that more than 60% of women are wearing the wrong bra size? And many, many more women are uncomfortable because they haven’t found “the one” – the right bra. Slipping straps, pokey underwire, muffin top on top – these are just a few of the issues that result from wearing the wrong size and style of bra.
To get the right size:
Measure your band size. While undressed, measure around the bottom of the band, directly under the bust, then round the measurement to the nearest whole number. For even numbers, add 4 inches; for odd numbers, add 5. This is your band size. (Ex: 32 +4 = 36 or 33 + 5 = 38)
Measure your bust. Wrap the measuring tape somewhat loosely around the fullest part of the bust, where the nipple is. Round this number to the nearest whole number.
Calculate your cup. Subtract your band size from your bust size. No difference means you’re an AA cup; 1 inch is an A; 2 inches a B; 3 inches a C; 4 inches a D; 5 inches a DD; 6 inches a DDD/F; and 7 inches a G cup.
Take it for a test drive. The back of the bra should be level with the front, and the bra should be snug, but not too tight where you can’t breathe. If the cups pucker or you get a “boob muffin top” where the breasts bulge over the cup, then you’re wearing the wrong cup size. If you need to go down a cup size, go up a band size (from 34C to 36B), and if you need to go up a cup size, go down a band size (from 38C to 36D).
Finding the right bra also depends on your breast type:
Sloped breasts. Breasts that start at the top and go down to the nipple like a slope.
Bra: For fullness, a push-up with crescent-shaped padding will push the lower breast tissue up, bringing your breasts together.
Semi-supported. The lucky breasts that are still mostly perky.
Bra: All bras will look great.
Augmented. Breasts that have implants.
Bra: All types, depending on the look you want.
Conical. Cone-shaped breasts, usually c-cup or smaller.
Bra: Padded bras help for a fuller look, and help give a rounded, natural breast shape.
Uneven. One breast is larger than the other. Most women have uneven breasts – those who are right-handed tend to have slightly smaller right breasts, and vice versa, but some women have a more noticeable difference.
Bra: Always fit your bra to your largest breast, and look for bras that are contour-cupped. A bra cup with a thin layer of foam can act as a nice filler to mold the smaller breast.
Settled. Breasts that are deflated or hanging.
Bra: A well-structured, multi-part bra with a cup that has seams in it. Seams give your breasts great structure and a nice shape.
Thin. “Tubular” breasts that are not as wide as the traditional underwire of bras.
Bra: Bandeau bras will push the breasts together, making them less “long.” A bra with a contour cup will also work.
Splayed. Breasts go outward, or east-west.
Bra: Demi bras will show more of your upper breast. Look for a triangular piece in between the cups where the wires meet, and side support panels in the cups to help push breasts center too.
When it comes to our bosoms, making a mountain out of a molehill isn’t necessarily a bad thing! And well, when motherhood, age, and gravity start to take their toll, we may want to help our girls look the way they used to.
If you want to make your breasts look better, there are a number of solutions both non-surgical and surgical. You can:
Exercise. Doing exercises like push-ups and lifting dumbbells can strengthen pectoral muscles beneath the breast tissue, giving them a slight boost in size and shape, with a little lift.
Wear the right bra. Wearing a bra that fits correctly can make a big difference in how your breasts look by giving them lift. A padded bra can give extra volume and oomph, for those days when you want to look a little…extra.
Contour. Just as you can contour your facial features with makeup, you can create illusions with makeup on your breasts! Apply a bronzer or powder darker than your skin color in the area down in your cleavage area, moving down in between your breasts. Blend this color up and outward, making a v-shape along the natural curve of your breasts. Brush a lighter shade of powder, such as gold or peach, over the top half of your breasts. Use a sponge to blend the shade and create a natural, more full look for your breasts.
Stand up straight. Poor posture means breasts that are hunched over and droopy looking. Standing with your back straight and chest out with make your breasts look bigger and perkier.
Dress to impress. Wearing a top with bust detail like ruffles or an empire neckline can make smaller breasts look bigger. Lower, but not too-low, necklines can also enhance cleavage and draw attention to breasts. Shirts that are too tight or don’t fit correctly can actually make breasts look smaller.
Try chicken cutlets. Not the food, but the silicone inserts for your bra! These curve and taper to conform to the breasts securely and discreetly, and can add 1-2 cup sizes immediately while lifting and giving better shape!
Get a breast augmentation. A surgical solution for those who want larger or fuller breasts. There are many types of breast implants, including saline (uniform shape, firmness and feel) and silicone gel (feels a bit more like natural breast tissue). They come in a variety of shapes (teardrop, round, etc.) and can cost upwards of $3,500 (U.S. average cost), not including anesthesia, operating room facilities, or other related expenses.
While many people believe breast augmentations are a one-time permanent solution, it’s important to know that implants are not designed to last forever. They may need to be replaced, so you should see your plastic surgeon for an annual examination to evaluate breast health and implant integrity.
And if you choose to take this route, make sure you consult with your plastic surgeon and get a full understanding of the risks and results, so that you increase your chances of a speedy recovery and a great look.
Get a breast lift. Of course not everyone wants bigger boobs. Some of us want breasts that are just a little more “uplifted,” and for that, a breast mastopexy can be the solution. In a breast lift, breasts are raised by removing excess skin and tightening the surrounding tissue to reshape and support the new breast contour. A breast lift can also reduce the size of the areolas.
A growing plastic surgery trend is the “mommy makeover,” a combination of a tummy tuck and breast lift and/or augmentation, to help their post-pregnancy bodies look more like their pre-pregnancy bodies.
Get a breast reduction. And for those of us who have breasts that are literally a big burden, a breast reduction, or mammaplasty, can remove excess breast fat, glandular tissue, and skin, to achieve more proportional breasts and alleviate the discomfort (back pain, shoulder pain) associated with overly large breasts.
Breasts are not only functional, they’re beautiful, too. No matter their shape or color, whether big or small, natural or enhanced, your breasts are a part of your body, so love them and take good care of them!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.