It is perfectly normal to be self-conscious about your boobs, but it is important to remember that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ breasts. Shape, size, colour and even texture can all vary from person to person, as can the presence of nipple hair or stretch marks.
A study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health shows that approximately 70% of women are unhappy with their breasts, but research conducted by the Journal of Female Health Sciences suggests that there is significant variation in breast shape and size all over the world. So if you’re wondering whether your boobs are the ‘wrong’ shape or size, the answer is probably not.
It is perfectly natural for your breasts to change over time too; the ageing process can cause your boobs to sag as you get older, while hormonal imbalances, periods or pregnancy can all cause swelling or soreness.
Unfortunately, this significant, natural variation can make it hard for you to tell when things are wrong: swelling, changes in size, and even itchy skin can all be symptoms of a serious medical condition like breast cancer, but it can be hard to tell whether you’re overreacting to a natural shift in your hormones, or genuinely need to see a doctor straight away.
It’s important to know what's normal for you so you can notice any changes: according to the American Cancer Society, close to 100% of women diagnosed in an early stage of breast cancer survive for at least 5 years following treatment.
Unfortunately, this survival rate drops to 22% when people are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease.
To maximise your chances of spotting a symptom, you should try to familiarise yourself with the warning signs, and practice breast awareness.
This involves regularly examining your breasts so that you know what’s normal for you. If you do find any abnormalities, they should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible.
Here, you’ll find more information about normal breasts, the warning signs of serious health conditions, and the ways in which you can check your breasts for any red flags.
Being ‘breast aware’
To make sure you are able to catch any warning signs, it is important to practice breast awareness.
To practice breast awareness, you should:
- Know what is normal for you
- Look at and feel your breasts
- Know which changes to look for
- See your doctor about any unusual changes
The best way to identify any warning signs in your breasts is to examine them regularly and to pay attention to the way they change over time.
Pay particular attention to the way that lifestyle factors like weight gain and your menstrual period affects the shape, size and feel of your breasts.
If you are ever concerned about anything you find, you should always contact your doctor.
Examining your breasts
It is good to regularly examine your breasts, especially after entering your twenties. An ideal time is 3-5 days after your period ends.
Doing this routine at the same time every month will help you identify how your breasts usually feel, so you’ll be able to notice if anything changes.
It is important to examine the entire breast area, which spans from your collarbone down to the bottom of your chest bone, around your side and underneath your armpit.
A self-breast exam can be done anytime that is convenient; even after a workout or just before bed. Some find this process easier during a shower or bath when soap can be used to lather the skin.
Be sure to take your bra off first so you can look at, as well as feel your breasts for any changes.
There is no one way to examine your breasts for cancer, but you can try these methods:
- Place one hand under your head
- Using the fingers on your other hand, check the entire breast area (including upper chest, around side and under armpit)
- Use small circular motions to feel all around your breast, then up and down it (use light, medium and firm pressure on each part)
- Lightly squeeze the nipple to check for discharge
Next, check for any changes in your breasts in front of the mirror using these four positions:
- With your arms at your sides
- With your arms up above your head
- With your hands on your hips so you can flex your chest muscles
- Bending forward (still flexing chest muscles)
Look out for any differences in the size and shape of your breast. In particular, check the skin and nipple for dimpling, puckering, bruising, bumps, inflammation, redness or nipple discharge.
If you are aged 50 or above, you may be invited to an appointment for a breast screening, (around every three years) depending on where you live.
This is because your risk of breast cancer increases once you are aged 50 and above.
In some countries, you are even recommended screenings from the age of 40.
If you are 50 or over and do not receive invitations, you should make an appointment with your doctor to check if your are entitled to any screenings.
Always attend screenings if you are at a higher risk of breast cancer as it is possible to miss warning signs using self-exams alone
What is ‘normal’?
Breasts come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. They’re made up of fat, glandular tissues, milk ducts, lymph nodes, veins and nerves - all of which can affect the way your breasts look and feel throughout your life.
Certain changes - like swelling during your period, are considered common - however, it is still important to know what is normal for you.
This way, you will know what to expect from your breasts, and you’ll be able to spot anything unusual before it develops.
It is natural to think that your breasts may be abnormal, as there is such a variety of shapes and sizes.
Listed below are some features of breasts that are common sources of worry, but do not necessarily indicate breast cancer.
Remember that while such features are not necessarily a sign of breast cancer, it is important that you know what is normal for you so you can report anything unusual to a doctor as soon as possible.
Breasts can range from small to big and it is common for them to be uneven or for one to hang lower than the other.
Taking birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), pregnancy and your period can all have an affect on the size and shape of your breasts.
This is because the hormones involved in these processes can cause milk ducts and glands to swell. Your breasts may be tender, sore, swollen or lumpy around your period. During pregnancy, breasts may also grow larger.
Changes in your weight can also have an effect on the shape and size of your breasts.
Sometimes your breast size may even change for no apparent reason. Check with your doctor if you are ever concerned.
Breasts can naturally be smooth or lumpy. They do not contain muscle, but they do have fibrous tissue which can sometimes feel lumpy.
You might notice the texture of your breasts changing at different points in your life.
In young women for example, breasts will typically have some thickness to them due to the milk system. This can sometimes feel like a lump or knot of dense tissue.
The milk system shrinks with age however, and is replaced with fat, so breasts are usually much softer by menopause. Due to this change in texture, normal lumps may become more noticeable with age.
You might also notice your breasts becoming lumpy due to hormonal changes around your period or pregnancy. This is due to the swelling of glands and ducts within your breasts.
Lumpiness should not be a concern if it is normal for you, consistent throughout the breast and a similar texture to your other breast.
However, if you are concerned about any lumps that you have found in your breast, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible.
Stretch marks are fine lines on the skin. You might develop stretch marks if your breasts grow very quickly, possibly during puberty or pregnancy.
They can sometimes fade on their own. While there is not much that can be done to stop them from appearing altogether, keeping skin moisturised might help.
Nipple shape, size and colour
Like breasts, nipples can also range from small to big. They can vary in colour, with some women having darker or lighter nipples than others. They might also point up or down or be a different sizes on each breast.
It is possible to be born with inverted nipples (the nipples turn inward instead of outward) or to develop them when your breasts grow.
Inverted nipples will sometimes begin to stick out once the breasts have completely finished growing or after childbirth and breastfeeding.
Some girls might have hair growing around their nipples or areola. This is normal, but if it makes you self-conscious you can trim them with small scissors (avoid plucking or waxing as this can cause infection).
Check your nipples regularly so that you can identify any changes in them as well
A small amount of nipple discharge, or liquid, is common once your breasts have fully developed (around the age of 17).
You might experience this after exercising or pressuring the breast or nipple area. The discharge is usually white in colour, but can also be yellowish, green or brown/ red.
These are detailed below in the ‘What isn’t normal?’ section of this article. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible as it may be a sign of breast cancer.
What isn’t 'normal'?
Regularly check your breasts so you can notice any lumps that you have not felt before.
Sudden changes in size, shape, and feel
Any unusual changes in the shape or size of your breast, like one breast suddenly becoming larger or hanging lower than the other can be a sign of breast cancer.
You should make an appointment with your doctor immediately if you notice a rapid increase in breast size, odd swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast.
You might experience persistent pain in one spot of your breast. This is not always a sign of breast cancer as breast pain is more common in benign breast conditions.
However, you should always see a healthcare professional if you are experiencing breast pain so they can help determine the cause.
Skin and nipple changes
Contact a healthcare professional if you notice dimpling or puckering of the skin on your breast as this can be a sign of breast cancer.
The skin on your nipple might also become itchy, scaly, sore, develop a rash or begin pulling in, similar to an inverted nipple. This pulling in of the skin can also occur on other parts of the breast area.
Nipple discharge can be normal, especially if you only experience a small amount. In some circumstances however, it can be an indication of breast cancer.
You should be concerned by nipple discharge if:
- It happens regularly
- It is only coming from one breast
- It is clear or bloodstained
- It has a bad smell
- It is not prompted by pressuring the breast or nipple
- You aren’t breastfeeding
- You are over 50
- You have other symptoms (e.g. a lump, pain, redness or the breast is swollen)
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Other possible symptoms
Contact your doctor immediately if you notice any of the symptoms listed below:
- Swelling or redness that covers at least a third of the breast
- Rapid increase in breast size
- Pink, purple, red colours or bruising appearing on the skin of the breast
- Ridges or pitting appearing on the skin, similar to the surface of an orange
- A feeling of heaviness, burning or tenderness
- An inverted nipple that you did not have before
- Swollen lymph nodes in the underarm and/or near the collarbone
These symptoms can be indications of an aggressive form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, which can result in cancer cells blocking the lymph (liquid) vessels in the skin.
This prevents the normal flow of liquid through the tissue and can cause a buildup of fluid in the skin of the breast.
While these symptoms may also be signs of infection, injury or another advanced form of breast cancer, it is important to see a healthcare professional who can help determine the cause and provide you with the necessary treatment.
Breast awareness is important as it encourages you to regularly check your breasts. Everyone’s breasts are different, so you have to make sure you know what is normal for you.
If you check your breasts regularly, you will know how they typically look and feel and what to expect from them. This way, any unusual changes will be easier to spot.
As in the case of breast cancer, you can increase your chances of survival and recovery by reporting abnormalities as soon as possible.
You should always alert your doctor if you notice anything unusual and reduce any delays in diagnosis or treatment.
To find out more about breast awareness, visit the Coppafeel website.