Cancer Care

Breast Health Tips for Women of All Ages

A woman's breasts go through significant changes throughout the course of her life, making the monitoring of your own breast health an important part of self-care. This process is something that should be instilled at puberty. Whether it's breast self-exams during teenage years or routine mammograms in middle age, there's always an aspect of breast care that women should know and maintain.

Breast Health at Puberty

One of the first signs of puberty is that a young girl's breasts start to develop; this is an excellent time for her to start becoming acquainted with her breasts and getting in the habit of performing routine breast self-exams. Rather than approaching it as fearfully watching for a scary condition, parents should encourage their daughters to treat it as a learning experience on how to care for themselves and observe changes through each monthly cycle.

Breast Health in Young Women

Younger women tend to have denser breasts, as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) explains, with less fatty tissue and more glandular and connective tissue. This can make mammograms more difficult to interpret, so they are more often used as a diagnostic tool than a screening tool at this age. Young women may have many life experiences, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, menstrual cycles, and the use of hormonal birth control, which may mask the symptoms of breast cancer. Despite its reputation as a disease that strikes later in life, NCI explains that young women are at risk for breast cancer as well, underlining why routine breast self-exams are recommended at this time.

Breast Health in Perimenopause and Menopause

Perimenopause is the time in a woman's life when her reproductive system starts to slow and shut down. It is the precursor to menopause, the period after you have moved beyond childbearing age. Both of these life stages involve changes to the breasts. According to NCI, breasts may become more tender as women enter perimenopause, and there may be increased lumpiness. At menopause, breasts become less dense and more fatty, making mammograms much easier to interpret. Diagnoses of breast cancer increase for women in perimenopause and menopause.

The Importance of Breast Self-Exams

The idea of a breast self-exam is to become familiar with how your breasts look and feel so that you will notice if there are changes. It is both a visual exam, in front of a mirror, and a physical exam, where the breasts are methodically palpated in a search for lumps. The American Cancer Society provides a guide on how to perform a breast self-exam.

Why Get a Mammogram?

The American Cancer Society recently revised its guidelines for when a woman with an average risk for breast cancer should begin getting mammograms, recommending that these diagnostic exams begin at age 45 instead of at 40. It's important to have regular check-ups with your doctor to determine when is the right age for you, as these mammograms help identify possible cancers of the breast, ideally before they are large enough to be felt as a lump. A diagnostic mammogram is performed to get a closer look when there is already suspicion of cancer. Early detection of breast cancer can mean the difference between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy, each of which have their own consequences when it comes to preserving tissue and function, and possibly reducing nerve damage and the resulting loss of sensation.

Breast cancer that's identified and treated before it spreads to other parts of the body is easier to treat and often has a good outcome. Once the cancer spreads, however, treatment options are more limited, explaining why early detection is so important.

Monitoring your breast health is an important part of taking care of yourself, no matter your age. In fact, this mindset is most effective when started at puberty and continued throughout life. Routine breast self-exams and annual mammograms are not time-consuming, and they will help you stay in touch with your body. The incentives are clear: If you catch a condition early, you're giving yourself a better chance at proper, timely treatment.

Posted in Cancer Care

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.