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Here's Why You Should Get to Know Your Breasts

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Get to know your breasts.

Regularly examining them can help you learn the nuances of your body to more easily detect any changes -- which could signal breast cancer or other breast diseases. 

“It’s important for women to have an awareness of their breasts,” said DaCarla Albright, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology for Penn Medicine. “It’s basic. We are with our bodies every single day, so we are more likely to notice if something doesn’t look right or doesn’t feel right. 

“We will notice it more easily than our physicians who see us once or twice a year.”

Know What to Look For

One in eight women – 12.5 percent – will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Finding breast cancer as early as possible gives you a better chance of successful outcomes. 

There are several different types of breast cancer, but one of the most common symptoms among breast cancers is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft or rounded, according to the American Cancer Society.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Swelling to your breast, with or without a distinct lump
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • A nipple that is turned inward
  • Red, scaly, or thickened nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge, not including breast milk
  • Swollen lymph nodes under your arms or near your collarbone

“Be aware of if there are any changes in the skin, in the skin color, if it is dimpling or pulling in a certain area,” Dr. Albright said. “Although changes in skin color could be a sign of something minor, like a breast infection that can be treated with an antibiotic, it can be a sign of something more concerning, thus it warrants attention.  Be sure to make your physician aware of any of the above symptoms.

“If you feel you have a mass or a lump that is new to you, that is something to alert your physician of, as well.”

Noticing Breast Changes

The symptoms above can be caused by things other than breast cancer, and it’s important to remember that not all lumps, changes or differences in your breasts signal serious diseases.

“I think, in general, women have to understand that even though their breasts aren’t as symmetric as they think they should be — one may be slightly larger than the other — that minor anatomic variation is completely normal,” Dr. Albright said.  

You might also notice changes in your breasts at certain times during your menstrual cycle, especially shortly before you begin your period, or at other times in your life, including during pregnancy or if you are taking hormones, such as birth control pills.

“There are times that hormonal changes happen,” Dr. Albright said. “I ask patients if they can relate any changes to their menstrual cycle. If changes are happening cyclically, they are less likely to be concerning.”

However, if you can’t tie changes in your breasts to your menstrual cycle, or if you notice a lump, swelling, tenderness or nipple irritation that doesn’t go away, call your doctor as soon as possible. She can perform a clinical breast exam, as well as order appropriate imaging, if necessary. 

“I really encourage women not to be afraid; many times it is not as concerning as they think,” Dr. Albright said. “Don’t delay, call your doctor, come in for an exam, let us evaluate it, and take it from there.” 

And, make sure you’re getting regular medical care and age-appropriate mammography.

“If age appropriate, get your screening,” Dr. Albright said.

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