Understanding the structure of your breast and the normal changes that occur will help you to detect any unusual changes in your breast. Female breasts are made up of milk glands, fibrous connective tissue, fatty tissue, and blood vessels. About 100 tiny glands, called acini, produce milk and are connected to a duct system that carries milk to the nipples. The milk glands are covered with a protective layer of fat. Fibrous tissue, which extends under the skin, from the front of the breast to the back of the chest wall, supports the breast and gives it shape. Strands of supportive tissue surround the breast and form a prominent ridge called the inframammary ridge.
For most women, each breast is nearly a mirror shape of the other, although it is not unusual for one breast to be larger than the other. The amount of glandular tissue and fatty tissue varies from woman to woman, and the breast can range from soft to quite firm, depending on the proportion of fat to fibrous tissue.
What are the Chances of a woman Getting Breast Cancer as She Gets Older?
By age 30 - 1 out of 2,000
By age 40 - 1 out of 233
By age 50 - 1 out of 53
By age 60 - 1 out of 22
By age 70 - 1 out of 13
By age 80 - 1 out of 10
Source: National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, 1995-1997
The Normal Breast
A woman’s breasts are responsive to hormonal changes throughout her lifetime.
In puberty, the production of estrogen increases the amount of fat and glandular tissue in the breast, which makes the breast’s fibrous tissue more elastic.
During a woman’s reproductive years, the menstrual cycle also brings cyclic breast changes. Many women experience changes such as swelling, tenderness and pain just before and sometimes during their periods. Increased lumpiness is sometimes also more noticeable at this time. Some women may actually feel one or more discreet lumps, which usually go away by the end of their menstrual period.
If a change or lump persists past the end of your period, you should call your doctor. Report all new and persistent changes to your doctor even if it has not been one full year since your last mammogram. A mammogram is not a guarantee that you will not get breast cancer.
During pregnancy, the milk-producing glands become swollen, and the enlarging breasts may feel lumpier than usual. This is the body’s way of preparing for the coming baby and for breastfeeding. Although it is not common, breast cancer can be diagnosed during pregnancy. If you have any questions about how your breasts feel or look, during pregnancy or any other time, talk with your doctor.
As a woman approaches her late 40s and early 50s, the milk-producing glandular tissue in her breasts increasingly gives way to soft, fatty tissue. At this time, the breasts become smaller and tend to droop. Unless she is taking replacement hormones, the lumpiness experienced with menstruation generally disappears after menopause.
Lymph nodes are soft, bean-shaped glands that are part of the body’s immune system. They form a drainage network that carries fluid away from the breast, and extends under the armpit, where they are called axillary nodes. Lymph nodes also extend along the collarbone where they are referred to as supraclavicular nodes.
It is important that you examine these two areas (the collar bone area and the armpit area) during your breast self-examination because both are considered to be part of the breast.
Your own sense of sight and touch, combined with an understanding of what is normal for you, are your most important tools for detecting breast cancer. By examining your breasts regularly, you will become familiar with their size, texture and shape. This familiarity will enable you to easily notice any breast changes that could indicate a problem.