Breast changes: What’s normal and what’s not?
While we probably know someone who has been tragically diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, the main risk factor that affects a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer is age. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 or older, according to the CDC.
Prisma Health OB/GYN Jill B. McLeod, MD, said it is important to be aware of breast changes so you can seek care when something doesn’t seem right.
What are some normal changes?
As a woman ages, the breasts lose fat and mammary glands, usually during menopause as the production of estrogen decreases. This loss results in the breasts becoming smaller and less dense (or full). With a loss of connective tissue, the infamous sag occurs.
Some women also notice a change to the nipple. The nipple may become smaller. The area around the nipple (the areola) may also become smaller or even disappear completely.
What breast changes are not normal?
Dr. McLeod recommends notifying your physician if you notice any of the changes below, which could be a sign of breast cancer:
- Overlying skin changes
- Nipple discharge
- Lumps in the underarm
- Change in the shape of the nipple, including new onset inversion
Breast cancer accounts for 30% of new cancer cases diagnosed in women, according to American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 8.
“It is so important to know your personal screening recommendations and see a physician for any changes in symptoms,” said Dr. McLeod. “Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has delayed routine screening and maintenance care for many people in the U.S., including screening mammograms.”
When should women be screened for breast cancer?
ACOG recommends yearly mammogram screenings starting at age 40. These recommendations can change depending on family history or changes in exam.
Dr. McLeod said it is important to discuss your family history with your physician. “While it is a common belief that most breast cancers are inherited through genetic abnormalities, most women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer do not have identifiable risk factors.”
Do self breast exams help?
Dr. McLeod said self breast exams are not adequate for primary screening. They have not been shown to be effective in detecting cancer or increasing survival rates. However, doctors teach self breast techniques so that patients understand what is normal and can identify changes that may not be normal for further evaluation. She said to keep in mind that with aging, cysts may become more easily felt.
Your self exam may take some practice. Helpful instructions can be found at www.breastcancer.org.
But this should not replace regular screening mammograms. “It is never too late to start mammogram screening. Please do not neglect this important part of health maintenance,” Dr. McLeod said.
Schedule your mammogram
To accommodate your busy schedule, many of our Breast Health Center locations offer early morning and late afternoon hours for breast imaging procedures.Learn More