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Breast health

Breast health is important for everyone. The more you know about your breasts, the easier it will be to notice changes to them.

The 3 Bs of breast health

The three Bs of breast health are:

  • Be healthy: this includes living in a healthy way to decrease your risk of breast cancer
  • Be aware: this means looking at your breasts, touching them and knowing how they change each month around the time of your menstrual period (monthly bleeding), when pregnant, while breastfeeding and as you get older. If you know how your breasts usually look, you are more likely to see any changes that are not normal for you. Being aware also includes knowing what increases the risk of breast cancer and how to lower your own risk
  • Be informed: this means knowing where to get information. Talk to your health care provider (public health nurse, doctor etc.) about your breast health, your risks, breast screening recommendations and breast cancer. Being informed helps you make healthy choices about your breast health.

Common breast concerns

Besides breast cancer, you should also be aware of the following benign (not cancerous) breast conditions that can occur.

Breast infection (mastitis)

Some women may get a breast infection called mastitis.  This can occur when women are breast feeding.  Mastitis can cause a fever and a hard, red, swollen area in the breast; even muscle pains and chills.

It is often treated with antibiotics and warm compresses (for example a heating pad or clean, warm wet wash cloth). You should see your health care provider if you have these symptoms.

Breast lump

While it can be a worry to find a lump in your breast, most lumps in the breast are not breast cancer. You or your health care provider may find a lump by looking at or feeling your breast. Common benign (non-cancerous) breast lumps are: fibrocystic changes, fibroadenomas, and cysts. 

If you find a new lump or a change in your breast you should see your health-care provider.

After examining your breast, your health-care provider may recommend more tests such as a diagnostic mammogram or an ultrasound to look at the lump.

Breast pain

Breast pain is common in women, and is not usually caused by cancer. The cause of breast pain is unknown. It may be related to hormonal changes, fibrocystic changes to the breast, cysts in the breast, breast surgery or may be coming from the breast bone or ribs.

It is normal to have mild breast pain 2-3 days before a menstrual cycle (period) and sometimes breast pain happens at other times. It can be in both breasts, one breast, or in only one part of the breast. The pain can go to other areas such as the armpit or down the arm.

Breast pain may be caused by wearing a bra that does not fit well. Seeing a trained bra fitter can help get the right fit and support for you.

You should see your health care provider about any breast pain that does not go away, gets worse, or prevents you from sleeping or doing regular activities.

Cyst

A cyst is fluid that collects in small pockets (sacs) in the breast. Cysts are usually found in women 30-50 years old. They may form because of hormonal changes in the body. If there are many cysts, the breast can feel lumpy. Cysts can be different sizes. They can feel hard and smooth compared to the rest of the breast tissue that is around it. Cysts can be tender to touch. Cyst size and tenderness can change during the menstrual cycle (period).

A cyst may require no treatment at all. If a cyst is tender and causes you to worry, your health-care provider may drain it. Sometimes the fluid will fill up again after the cyst has been drained.

Fibroadenoma

A fibroadenoma is a solid mass (lump) of normal breast tissue. It can feel firm and round. It can move easily under the skin. Fibroadenomas are usually found in women between the ages of 20-30. They can feel tender. Sometimes there can be more than one.

For most women with a fibroadenoma, there is no increased risk of getting breast cancer.

Treatment for fibroadenomas may not be necessary unless they are large, painful or cause you to worry, in which case they can be surgically removed. Talk to your health-care provider about treatment options for a fibroadenoma.

Fibrocystic changes

Fibrocystic changes in the breast can make breasts feel lumpy and tender. The tenderness is often in the upper, outer areas of the breast (near the armpit), but can be anywhere in the breast. It is usually found in women 30-50 years of age.

Fibrocystic changes may be because of the changes in hormones during a woman’s menstrual cycle (period). It is common for the breasts to feel more lumpy, tender and swollen close to the start of the menstrual cycle. The tenderness and lumpiness often get better a few days after the period stops. Fibrocystic changes do not increase your risk of breast cancer.

It is important to know how your breasts normally look and feel, so you can notice if a change occurs.  If you find a new lump or a change to your breast you should see your health care provider.

Gynecomastia (enlarged breasts in men)

Gynecomastia is an increase in the amount of breast gland tissue in boys or men, caused by an imbalance of the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Gynecomastia can affect one or both breasts, sometimes unevenly.

Newborns, boys going through puberty and older men may develop gynecomastia as a result of normal changes in hormone levels, though other causes also exist.

Nipple discharge

Liquid can come out of a woman’s breast when the nipple is squeezed. The liquid may be white, green, yellow, brown, or a combination of these colours. This is normal for many women and often happens before menopause or change of life. Do not squeeze the nipple or breast. This can cause more discharge.

If nipple discharge is new for you, happens without squeezing your nipple, changes in colour, or is bloody, it should be checked by your health care provider.

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