Breast health is vitally important to a woman’s overall health and well-being. Unfortunately, many women (and most men it seems) think of breasts as just an accessory, paying little if any attention to more than their appearance or size. These people care more about enhancing the look or feel of the breast with creams, supplements or even surgery than checking for lumps or bumps to ensure that the glands and ducts are working properly.
Second only to skin cancer, cancer of the breast is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States. A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 3 minutes. In 2006, over 210,000 cases of the illness were reported in the US alone.
Therefore, women should know what a healthy breast looks and feels like. Breasts are mainly comprised of fatty tissue containing thousands of tiny glands (lobules). These are designed to produce milk during the final stages of pregnancy and after childbirth. Breastfeeding is deemed by many to be the healthiest alternative for feeding babies for both mother and child.
This milk flows from the lobules through tiny tubes called ducts and comes out of the nipple. The nipple is located in the dark circular area of the skin called the areola. Breasts are also made up of lymph vessels, which carry a clear fluid called lymph. Lymph contains proteins, fats and blood cells, some of which attack bacteria to keep the blood clean and disease-free.
The lymph vessels lead to small organs called lymph nodes, which are found near the breast in the underarm region and above the collar bone. Lymph nodes serve a very important function by trapping bacteria, cancer cells and other harmful agents that may flow through the lymphatic system. When the lymphatic system works properly, a person can remain healthy.
Women should undergo regular testing to make sure that their breasts are healthy. A mammogram is procedure used to detect breast cancer. It is recommended for women over 40 even if they see no signs of breast cancer. Early detection is a woman’s best defense in beating breast cancer.
Women are also encouraged to test themselves regularly via self-tests and in annual check-ups with their primary care doctors or specialists. Changes to look out for include:
- Size or shape – is one larger or lower than the other?
- Texture – does the skin pucker or dimple?
- Appearance and direction of the nipple – has it become inverted?
- Discharge – does either one (or both) release a blood-stained liquid?
- Rash or crusting – is the nipple and/or the surrounding area inflamed, itchy or crusty?
- Lump – is there an unusual hardness or thickening in the tissue that doesn’t go away after your menstrual cycle?
- Pain – is pain present in the breast or under the armpit and is it independent of your period?
If you do detect a change in your breasts, it’s best to seek out the help of a qualified medical professional. Don’t immediately assume you have cancer. Rather, be vigilant about getting medical help. Early detection is a life-saver.
(For some fun facts about breasts, click here!)