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It’s every woman’s greatest fear: Finding a breast lump while showering or doing a monthly breast self-exam. But the truth is, a lot of that fear is unfounded, due to the fact that 80% of all lumps turn out to be benign. Here’s what those lumps really mean. Writes Indu S.

We all know the stats: One in nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. For most of us, those numbers make every bump in our breasts a cause for panic. But while a lump should never be ignored, the fact is that the texture and feel of a perfectly healthy breast — whether lumpy or smooth, sore or sensitive — can vary from month to month, woman to woman. So when should a bump evoke concern? Read this B&S advisory article compiled by information from leading doctors in the field.

Why your breasts are lumpy?

Doctors have a scary name for lumpy breasts: Fibrocystic breast disease. But although the word disease may induce panic, doctors reassures that lumpy breasts are common. “Many women experience lumpiness, tenderness or thickening of the breast tissue due to monthly hormonal changes. It’s not unusual.”

In fact, there isn’t even a specific test to diagnose these kinds of lumps. It’s not like having a mammography or biopsy and finding a result. It’s kind of in the fingers of the beholder.

Sussing out the good lump from the bad

If your breasts are on the lumpy side, it can be tough to know what to feel for during those monthly self exams. The good news is that “normal” breast lumps tend to feel distinctive; usually they’re soft, smooth and movable. Cancerous lumps, on the other hand, tend to be hard, rough-edged and immobile.

The best way to keep yourself healthy is to examine your breasts every month so that you’re intimately familiar with their geography — every dip and lump and thickening. The best time to do it is about a week after your period, when breasts tend to be least lumpy. (Breast lumpiness and soreness is most likely to occur the week before a woman’s period and ease up after menstruation begins.)

Once you have a sense of the normal texture of your breasts, it will be easier to figure out when something doesn’t feel right and merits a trip to your doctor.

Lumps and cancer risk: Is there a connection?

The good news is fibrocystic breast condition does not increase your risk of breast cancer. There is no relationship between this condition and breast cancer, claim doctors.

What to do when your breasts hurt

Try taking the Pill. Birth-control pills seem to ease pain and lumpiness for some women. This is probably because they keep a woman’s hormone levels more stable throughout her cycle.

Ditch that skimpy lingerie — at least on top. Some women find that wearing a supportive bra (read: one with underwires) can help ease pain.

Go easy on caffeine — Though studies haven’t proved a connection between lumpiness and caffeine, some doctors recommend that women with monthly breast pain cut back on the coffee.

Your Breast Health

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women today, and every woman is at risk. Although there is no proven way to prevent the disease, there are ways that each woman can protect her health. Here are steps you can take to maintain good breast health.

Follow an early-detection program:

* Get regular mammograms, beginning at age 40; one every year or as directed by your doctor.

* Have a breast examination by a doctor or nurse, every year, starting at age 20.

* Learn the normal feel of your breasts, and perform monthly self exams. Many women have lumpy breasts, which are usually not cause for concern. However, if you feel a change or a lump that is new, be sure to have it checked by a doctor or nurse right away.

* There are other steps you can take for good breast health. Researchers are continuing to explore the effect that a healthy, active lifestyle can have on reducing breast cancer risk. While it is not yet known whether losing weight will reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, maintaining a lifelong healthy weight is good for your breast health as well as for your heart and bones.

Results of breast cancer research also suggest you should:

* Maintain a diet low in fat; one that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These low-calorie, high-fiber foods have proven health benefits.

* Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Regular use of even small amounts of alcohol — whether it is liquor, beer or wine — has been shown to increase breast cancer risk.

* Don’t smoke. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease and many chronic illnesses; it also negatively affects the health of others.

* Exercise regularly. Work out, do aerobics, bike or walk briskly — exercise in some way so as to raise your heart rate — three or more times a week. Several studies have shown that regular vigorous exercise can reduce breast cancer risk.

Reducing your risk: Self examination techniques

Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but it can be detected at an early, treatable stage. Women ages 40 and older should go for regular screening mammograms, a simple procedure that can reveal breast cancer at its earliest stage — up to two years before it can be felt. Annual screening mammography should begin at age 40. And, annual breast examinations by a medical professional are a required complement to screening mammography. Every woman, age 20 and over, should have a clinical breast exam by a doctor or nurse every year.

Many breast irregularities are found by women themselves, yet women often do not know how to perform breast self-examination (BSE), and few do so regularly. Although BSE has never been proven to affect survival (BSE usually finds lumps at a later stage), becoming familiar with your breasts and what feels normal for you is a recommended component of every woman’s breast health program. Your annual exam is a good time to ask your doctor or nurse about how to do a good self-examination every month. Giving yourself a correct and comprehensive breast self-exam is vital to your health.

For Monthly Breast Self-Exams:

* Use the flat part of your fingers of your three middle fingers to feel your breast. Always use your left hand for your right breast and your right hand for your left breast.

* Go from your neck, down under your arm, across and to the bottom of your rib cage and up the breastbone. This area is all breast tissue.

Check for any lumps, hard knots, swelling, dimpling or thickening. Perform your self-exam in front of a mirror and observe for any abnormal change in size, shape, color or discharge.

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