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Your Guide to Healthy Breasts: What Those Lumps, Bumps, and Weird Conditions Really Mean

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Breast Symptoms to Look Out For

Ever since you first donned a training bra, you've probably fixated on your breasts' appearance. But how much have you thought about what's happening inside your dynamic duo?

"It's important to get really familiar with your breasts and know what's normal for you," says Therese Bevers, MD, director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "Pay attention to any lumps, discomfort, and changes in texture and color. The more aware you become, the easier it will be for you to pick up on something that needs to be checked out."

Most lumps and bumps are nothing to worry about. "Throughout your lifetime, it's likely that any abnormality is due to something other than cancer," says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, an ob-gyn at Yale University School of Medicine. In fact, more than 80 percent of suspicious lumps that are biopsied turn out to be benign.

You don't often hear about noncancerous breast conditions, because they're not life threatening. Yet the majority of us will experience one at some time, and they can cause major angst and be a big pain in the boob. That's why we uncovered the problems that women are most likely to face and asked leading experts how to solve them. Use this decoder guide to become a better bosom buddy.

Strange symptom: Swollen, bumpy breasts before your period

In addition to mood swings, cheese-fry cravings, and breakouts, you can add achy, lumpy breasts to the long list of pesky PMS symptoms. There's a medical term for it — fibrocystic breast changes — and it's the most common benign breast condition, affecting half of all women.

"Breast tissue changes in response to fluctuating levels of hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, during your menstrual cycle," says Richard J. Bleicher, MD, a breast surgeon at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Breasts also retain fluid pre-period, which can cause your perky pair to feel heavy and swollen. Take a pass on the fries and other salty grub to bring relief, and limit your daily dose of caffeine, which contributes to fluid retention, Dr. Minkin says.

Bumps that result from normal hormonal ups and downs will shrink or disappear after your period. "If a lump sticks around or gets bigger, make an appointment with your doctor to have it checked out," Dr. Minkin says.

Strange symptom: Raw, scaly nipples

A poorly fitting sports bra is the most likely culprit. "A loose bra rubs against the nipple and areola and can cause chafing," says Robin Travers, MD, a dermatologist in Boston. This can happen as a go-to bra stretches out over time. Sweat and dry skin add to the friction.

Wash sore nipples with mild soap and water to prevent infection and use a thin layer of an over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream for a couple of days to calm inflammation, Dr. Travers suggests. Apply a salve, like Aquaphor Healing Ointment, several times a day.

To prevent chafing, replace baggy bras with ones that fit snugly and are made of moisture-wicking fabrics. If you're prone to excessive sweating, roll antiperspirant directly onto your breasts and nipples before exercise. Also dab your nips with Vaseline or Body Glide before workouts to eliminate rubbing.

If the condition persists a week after these measures, make an appointment with your doctor to rule out more serious medical problems, such as Paget's disease, a very rare type of breast cancer that forms around the nipple and can resemble chafing. Another potential cause is a yeast infection. (You can get them in your breasts, too. Who knew?) This is especially common in women who are breastfeeding. Physicians usually prescribe a mild topical steroid to heal the skin, along with an antifungal cream to treat the infection.

Strange symptom: A sharp, stabbing pain in your breast

Try lifting your arm on the side that hurts and moving it around. Instant agony indicates that you pulled a chest muscle during a tough workout. "If you feel the pain when you make certain movements, but it's not there when you're sitting still, the issue is most likely muscular," Dr. Bleicher says. Take a break from any exercises that involve chest muscles, and pop a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, for several days. If the pain lasts for more than a week or you notice other symptoms, such as a lump or redness, you may have a cyst or a pus-filled pimple beneath the skin that needs to be drained. Visit your doctor.

Strange symptom: Random leakage

Nipple secretion most commonly happens during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but you can experience it at other times, too. If the seepage is clear, yellow, or greenish, it's a harmless liquid from the milk ducts. "There's no specific reason or treatment for this, and it's considered benign," Dr. Bleicher says. "If the fluid is milky, see your doctor, as she may decide to do a blood test. It could be caused by any number of things that alter normal hormone levels, such as hypo­thyroidism, birth control pills, or certain antidepressants."

Bloody discharge is a rare sign of breast cancer, so call your doctor immediately to have it checked out. Odds are, however, that its source is a benign tumor in the milk duct called an intraductal papilloma. You may be able to feel a small, wartlike bump right behind or next to the nipple. Physicians sometimes surgically remove the area because needle biopsies can't always rule out breast cancer.

Strange symptom: One boob is red and warm and hurts like heck

It sounds like you've got a breast tissue infection known as mastitis, which is mostly caused by bacteria that enter the milk duct through a cut in the skin. The result is inflammation, swelling, and pain; you might also develop a fever, a headache, and other flulike symptoms. Ten percent of breastfeeding women develop mastitis, but a scratch or a bug bite can also allow bacteria to infiltrate.

Contact your doctor at the first sign of infection. "While it's probably mastitis, which can be treated with antibiotics, your doctor needs to rule out inflammatory breast cancer, an uncommon but very aggressive type," says Jill Dietz, MD, a breast surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. To relieve the pain of mastitis, apply a warm or cool compress — whichever feels better — to the tender area several times a day.

To prevent the condition, keep your breasts clean and dry whenever you get a scratch. Always take off your sports bra immediately after you exercise. Hanging out in a sweaty one increases the chances of infection.

Strange symptom: A marble-size mass that moves when you touch it

It's terrifying to find a lump, and it's vital to have your doctor examine it. Still, don't freak out while you're waiting for the diagnosis. There's a more probable culprit than cancer: fibroadenoma, a benign tumor that's most common among women in their twenties and thirties.

"Of all the benign breast conditions, a fibroadenoma has symptoms that most closely resemble those of cancer," Dr. Bleicher says. "It's a solid, painless, palpable mass that can grow over time." It even looks a lot like cancer on a mammogram, so your doctor may need to perform a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. If it is a fibroadenoma, your physician will probably take a watch-and-wait approach and order an ultrasound every six months. A mass that keeps growing may need to be removed.

Lifestyle Changes to Cut Your Breast Cancer Risk in Half

With your fit lifestyle, you're already well on your way to keeping the Big C at bay. These four simple steps will slash your risk by a whopping 50 percent, according to a recent study.


  • Get 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.
  • Eat right. Read about the foods you need to eat to protect against breast cancer below.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Don't drink alcohol. (If you do imbibe, limit yourself to one drink a day, the American Cancer Society recommends.)


Source: Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention

What to Eat to Beat Breast Cancer

Eating to beat breast cancer is easy. Fill two-thirds of your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. "These foods contain nutrients and phytochemicals, which help our bodies fight cancer by, for example, blocking the growth of tumors or repair­ing DNA that has been damaged," says Sally Scroggs, RD, senior health education special­ist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Research shows the following six foods may have a particularly potent protective effect against the disease.

Leafy green vegetables
Spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard contain high levels of certain carotenoids, antioxidant-like substances that wipe out harmful free radicals before they can damage healthy cells.

Strawberries and raspberries are rich sources of ellagic acid, a phytochemical that helps short-circuit cancer cells' ability to multiply.

Cruciferous vegetables
Compounds in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale may help regulate enzymes in your body that defend against cells that could become cancerous.

Women who ate a third of an ounce of mushrooms daily were 64 percent less likely to develop breast cancer, one study found. The fungi appear to act like aromatase inhibitor meds, which block the body's production of the cancer-feeding hormone estrogen.

Whole grains
Brown rice, bulgur, and buckwheat contain lignans, substances that reduce breast cancer risk by as much as 14 percent.

This herb is packed with apigenin, a compound that appears to block the formation of blood vessels to cancerous mammary cells in animals.

How to Do a Breast Self-Exam

No clue how to do a breast self-exam? No worries. "Just touch your breasts often — especially the week after your period, because that's when they're least lumpy — and watch for anything that changes or feels different," says Therese Bevers, MD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This habit is one of your best defenses against breast cancer, particularly before you start getting mammograms at age 40. In addition to feeling for lumps, be alert for these lesser-known signs of breast cancer: flattening or indentations in one area of the breast, dimpled skin that looks like an orange peel, redness, and pulling or dimpling of the nipple.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2011.

Get Step-by-Step Instructions for a Breast Self-Exam