As someone who works for a health company, you would think that I would be fairly on top of my health. For the most part, I am. I eat a healthy diet, maintain a proper weight and am conscious about how my lifestyle choices affect my overall health.
However, one area that I’ve always neglected is getting annual exams. In fact, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that the only time I remember seeing a doctor is when I was very sick as a child or the physical exams that were required to play sports in high school and college. But after months of reading about the importance of preventive health care, I recently decided to make regular exams a priority. At the age of 25, I’ve finally scheduled my first check-up. I’ve also begun researching more about breast health and breast cancer risk. Here’s what I found out about having healthy breasts in your 20s and 30s.
Breast changes: What’s normal?
A woman’s 20s and 30s is when she is most likely to begin having children, and with pregnancy and breastfeeding come certain breast changes. After giving birth and breastfeeding, it is normal to have your breasts shrink—as much as a full cup size. This phenomenon is called involution and it occurs because the milk-making system in the breast—which increases due to pregnancy—decreases after a woman breastfeeds. On the upside, many studies have shown that breastfeeding can offer long-term protection against breast cancer if a woman has her first child after age 25.
Menstruation is another cause of non-cancerous breast changes. During the week before and after a woman’s period, breasts may become swollen, bumpy and tender. These changes are normal but can be bothersome. Some studies show that reducing caffeine intake may help manage symptoms related to menstruation.
Here is a more in-depth guide of how to tell whether your breast changes are cancerous.
Common breast health concerns
Many women in their 20s and 30s experience breast changes and abnormalities, but they are typically non-cancerous. One common concern is breast pain, which can be cyclic—coming with menstrual periods—or more persistent. Generally, breast pain is not a sign of breast cancer but is rather likely due to changes in hormone levels, stress and/or medications. In fact, here are 10 reasons you probably don’t have breast cancer. If you experience breast pain that is more persistent, you should consult your doctor.
Lumpiness in general is also a common concern. Often lumpy breasts are the result of hormonal changes causing developmental changes in fibrous tissues and cystic spaces in the breast. While fibrocystic changes can be uncomfortable, they are benign and do not increase risk of breast cancer.
Sometimes women develop one firm, smooth lump that moves around when pressed. This is called a fibroadenoma—a benign breast tumor made of fibrous and glandular tissue that is painless and slow-growing. If the lump is painful and bothersome, it can be surgically removed.
Guide to screenings
Women in their 20s and 30s typically do not have to worry about breast cancer, since only 5 percent of all cases of breast cancer occur in women younger than age 40, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the majority of women under age 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, which makes it vital for young women to take preventive measures to detect any abnormalities early on. Early detection of breast cancer can also improve survival chances.
Women should begin receiving clinical breast exams (CBE) by a gynecologist in their 20s. According to the American Cancer Society, CBEs should be conducted every three years until a woman turns 40. Because a woman’s breasts are more tender and swollen during her menstrual cycle, it is best to schedule a breast exam soon after the menstrual period ends. Doing so will make it easier for the doctor to detect any possible abnormalities. If you have never received a breast exam, you can expect the doctor to thoroughly examine your breasts and check for any skin changes, such as rashes, dimpling or redness.
Beginning at the age of 35, women should begin getting a baseline mammogram. Mammograms are not recommended for women under the age of 35 since younger women are not likely to have breast cancer and younger women are also more likely to have a false positive result from a mammogram. For more information, read more about breast cancer screenings by age.
In addition to getting annual clinical exams, women in their 20s should also begin conducting monthly breast self-exams. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) guidelines released in 2003, breast self-exams are optional. However, experts say that the more you examine your breasts, the more likely you will be able to recognize if/when there are any abnormalities. Here are the steps of how to properly perform a breast self-exam.
Lifestyle choices for healthy breasts
In addition to regular screenings, it is important for women to make lifestyle choices that may help ensure healthy breasts.
Tips for healthy breasts include exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. Many recent studies have allowed researchers to better understand the link between exercise and breast cancer risk.
Other tips for healthy breasts include limiting alcohol intake, avoiding smoking and eating foods that can help prevent cancer. Women should also aim to avoid common carcinogens and be aware of their risk of breast cancer.
Multimedia journalist with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs