Your breasts: They’ve inspired artists and writers; they’re worshipped and adored by millions. We’ve all got them and they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes we cover them, and sometimes we flaunt them.
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And yet many women aren’t comfortable even talking about them with their girlfriends, let alone their doctor.
To get the conversation started, here are some basic facts to know about your breasts:
Breast Shape and Size
Despite what you see in the media, women’s breasts come in all different shapes and sizes. Size often depends both on genetics and your body-fat percentage. And it’s common for your breasts to change size over the course of your lifetime. The two most common times this happens are during pregnancy and nursing and whenever your weight fluctuates.
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In terms of size, one breast may be slightly smaller or larger than the other. Nipples also vary in size and shape; and some women have what’s called inverted nipples. The size of your areola (the tissue around the nipple) can vary in size, shape and color too.
Some women have large areolar tissue, while others have barely any. Color can range from very pink nipples and areolas to almost a chocolate brown. All these variations are normal and what make us special and unique.
The caveat: If you notice a change, then this may not be normal and you should consult your doctor. For example, a nipple that was always protruding and is suddenly inverted is not normal and needs to be checked out.
Regardless of shape or size, your breasts need to be supported. Wearing the right bra size matters — you can actually suffer from neck and back pain if your bra is the wrong size. And don’t forget to have bras in larger and/or smaller sizes for when your breasts change. You can use a measuring tape to get an accurate sizing, or have a salesperson at your favorite lingerie store help you out.
To get proper support, you need to get the measurements right! The two measurements that you need to know are your chest wall size, known as band size, in inches (32, 34, 36, 38, etc.), and cup size (A, B, C, D, DD, etc.).
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To measure your band size, wrap a measuring tape around your chest, just below your breasts. To measure your cup size, measure across the largest part of your breasts and then subtract your band size from the cup size: Each inch equals a cup size. For example, 36 - 34 = 2, and 2 = B. For each measurement, round up if you get an odd size.
Inspect Your Breasts
I always encourage women to do a breast self-exam every month. Why? It’s simple: I like to be in control of my own health, and I like to know what’s “normal” for me. If something doesn’t feel right — and you’ll know simply because you’ve been examining your breasts monthly — you should alert your doctor.
There’s no magic way to do a self-exam, as long as you examine all of your breast tissue. There’s also no magic time to do one: I recommend one week after your period, if you're still getting periods. Or just pick your favorite day of the month and always examine your breasts on that day.
How to Do a Breast Exam
Look: First, stand in front of mirror and just look. Get to know what’s normal for you. Once you know what’s normal, then you can start looking for what’s abnormal: A change in size? Does the skin pucker or dimple? Does the nipple look different; is it inverted when it normally isn’t? Is there any discharge from the nipples? Is any of the skin (breasts, areola or nipple) red, swollen or rash-like?
Examine Lying Down: There’s is no right way to do this. I repeat: There is no right way to do this! I emphasize this because in my experience, it’s the most common reason why women don’t examine their breasts — “I didn’t know how” or “I didn’t want to do it the wrong way.”
Here are the two most common methods, and either way is fine. More importantly, any method is fine as long as you cover all of your breast tissue.
Circular: Keeping all your fingers together, use the pads of your fingers to press gently in small circles around one breast, then repeat on the other. Go around and around, either from the inside working out, or the outside working in. Cover all the tissue in each breast.
Vertical: Keep your fingers together and use the pads of your fingers to press gently up and down each breast, either from the inside out or from the outside in. Cover all the tissue in each breast.
Examine Standing Up: Examine your breasts using the same method you used when lying down. This is actually my preferred method, and usually while in the shower. But again, it doesn’t matter which method you choose — just as long as you do it!
Check out our handy guide for tips on performing a breast self-exam below:
Get more information about breast self-exams from the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
What Do YOU Think? Do you do breast self-exams or do you wait until you see your doctor? What's the most surprising thing that you learned in this article? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Beth Ricanati, M.D. has built her career bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy moms juggling life and children. Based in Southern California, Dr. Ricanati writes wellness content for YouBeauty.com and serves as a consultant for medical projects and start-ups. Follow her on Instagram.