With all the things you have on your agenda — your job! your family! — it's easy to not give your breasts and their health much thought. For many of us, they're like fancy silverware — something we might bust out on holidays or when we're expecting special guests, but not something we pay much attention to on the regular. And if we're not into breast stimulation during sex or boobage as a fashion statement, we might totally ignore our lovely lady lumps in general. I was in this boat myself for years — I thought my boobs were just weird, annoying appendages that kept any dresses from ever fitting me properly, so I pretty much put them out of my mind entirely. But there's a reason you need to pay more attention to the area between your chin and your navel.
So what do you absolutely, positively need to know about your breasts? You need to know how your breasts feel and look when they're healthy — so that you'll notice any changes to them that might signify a health issue. As the website for the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center says, "Breast cancer symptoms vary from person to person. The best thing to do is to be familiar with your breasts so you know how 'normal' feels and looks."
Bustle's sexual health columnist Emma Kaywin weighed in on the crucial health importance of familiarizing yourself with your breasts last year:
The best way to prevent negative outcomes from breast cancer (in other words, serious illness or death) is to catch it early, when it’s easy to treat. For instance, if you catch a cancerous tumor before it spreads, in nine out of ten cases you’re giving yourself at least five more years of life. Your doctor will help you do this through routine mammograms, but you should check yourself too!
Here are five questions you might have about feeling yourself, answered.
1. When Should I Start Thinking About My Breast Health?
I mean, I hope you and all of your breasts remain healthy forever. But young women do get breast cancer. According to the Young Survivor's Coalition, 13,000 young women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. And beyond that, almost one third of the people who develop breast cancer are between the ages of 39 and 50 — which might sound like it's lightyears in the future, but is actually not that far off.
I say this not to freak you out, but to encourage you to develop the habit of checking and touching your breasts now. You don't have to check them in a state of panic about your health — just make touching your Winklevoss Twins part of your regular self-care routines, like flossing or moisturizing.
2. Should I Do Self Exams?
Hopefully, you've heard about breast self exams, a technique which involves touching your breasts in a specific pattern, looking for changes. The method has become controversial in recent years — according to the American Cancer Society, "Research does not show a clear benefit of physical breast exams done by either a health professional or by yourself for breast cancer screening. Due to this lack of evidence, regular clinical breast exam and breast self-exam are not recommended," while the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. still recommends monthly breast self-exams.
Kaywin broke down the most popular techniques for breast self exams, and they are still a great tool for keeping an eye on your health and learning more about your body, so yes, you should do them.
3. Should I Do Anything Besides Self Exams?
You can also become more familiar with your breasts and how they normally look and feel in a less formal manner, too, beyond self-exams. Generally knowing how your breasts feel is a great asset for keeping on top of your breast health. The American Cancer Society says that new masses or lumps found in the breast are the most common sign of breast cancer, but other physical symptoms are also worth keeping an eye out for, such as "Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt); skin irritation or dimpling; breast or nipple pain; nipple retraction (turning inward); redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin; [or] a nipple discharge other than breast milk."
These are all symptoms you'll have the best chance of noticing if you expand your relationship with your boobs beyond just soaping 'em up in the shower, shoving 'em into your bra, and occasionally bringing them out for recreational activities.
So touch your boobs! Rub them, squeeze them, grab a handful. What do you feel under your fingertips? How does it feel to put pressure on them in different ways? You're not just looking for lumps or abnormalities — you're registering how they feel when they're healthy, so that you'll be more aware if anything changes.
4. What Does A Lump That I Should Be Worried About Feel Like?
There's no reason to anticipate a lump — but you should know what one feels like. Sutter Health California Pacific Medical Center's website notes that "Lumps will usually stand out from the surrounding tissue. They may be of any size and shape, may be fixed or movable and may be different in firmness. They are more easily felt if they are close to the skin. Lumps which remain unchanged during one or two menstrual cycles require further investigation."
If you find a lump like this, contact your doctor — though finding a lump absolutely does not mean that you have a tumor or cancer (many women experience breast cysts or similar non-cancerous lumps).
5. What If My Boobs Always Feel Kind Of Lumpy?
Knowing how your breasts usually look and feel will help prevent unnecessary freak-outs over some of the ordinary bumps and lumpiness that pop up in our boobs from time to time. According to Stony Brook Medicine's breast health webpage, "Normal breast tissue often feels nodular (lumpy) and varies in consistency from woman to woman. Even within each individual woman, the texture of breast tissue varies at different times in her menstrual cycle, and from time to time during her life."
I know that I personally have very lumpy breasts — a state of affairs that shocked me a few years ago, when I gave them their first serious rub-down. Why did my breasts feel like those stress-balls that are full of plastic beans? Did I get breast implants made out of marbles that I had somehow forgotten about? I was shocked, and more than a little freaked out — I was so unfamiliar with my breasts and their texture, I was sure that this had to be a sign of a serious health problem. But when I brought it up to my gyno, she assured me that nothing was off — some of us just have chunkier breast tissue than others.
According to the website for Sutter Health California Pacific Medical Center, "At least half of all women are affected by lumpy breasts at some time in their lives...There is no effective treatment and none is needed for these normal changes in breast texture." Having "lumpy" breasts won't impact a mammogram, and isn't the same as having "dense" breast tissue (an issue which can only be identified via mammogram — having dense breast tissue and breasts that feel lumpy are different things).
And know that having lumpy breasts absolutely does not make you more likely to develop breast cancer — that's a myth. Nor does it make you less likely to find abnormalities, once you become familiar with their actual texture. According to Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, "Women with lumpy breasts can still feel when something isn’t right.”
The Bottom Line
Of course, there can be benefits to paying closer attention to your breasts beyond being aware of health-related changes — becoming more in touch with your physical body can also positively impact your self-image. Spending more time without your clothes on has been theorized to help fight body shame, and if you have personally never understood what the big fuss was about boobs, paying attention to them can give you a new aspect of yourself to appreciate.
So touch your boobs: it's an important investment in your health, a way to potentially feel good about your body, and hey, it's cheaper than going to the movies.
Images: Andrew Zaeh/Bustle; Giphy (4)