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The Healthy Breast

Like many women, you may not have stopped to think about your breast health until you had reason to, such as noticing a breast change that concerned you.

Knowing about your breasts and how they function can help you understand the normal changes that may occur during your lifetime. This could help you pinpoint any unusual breast changes and know when it’s time to discuss changes with a health care provider. 

Your Breasts

Your breasts are made up of tissues that produce milk (glandular tissue), connective tissue, and fat. Younger women tend to have more glandular tissue in their breasts than older women, making their breasts more denseDense breasts (breast density):
Dense breasts have less fat and more glandular and connective tissue. A woman’s breast density depends on her age and genetic factors. Breast density is a risk factor for breast cancer. Having “dense breasts” is a clinical diagnosis that can only be assessed by mammography.
.

Each breast is arranged into 15-20 sections called lobes, and each lobe contains a number of milk-producing glands called lobulesLobules:
Small glands in the breast that produce milk.
. Milk produced by the lobules is carried through a network of passageways called ductsDuct (mammary duct):
A hollow passage for gland secretions. There are ducts in the female and male breast.
, which eventually join together and exit the breast through the nipple.

Connective tissue helps to provide support and give shape to your breasts. Your breasts also have a small amount of muscle. Muscle tissue in the nipple allows it to become erect in response to stimulation or breastfeeding. Muscle tissue around the lobules helps squeeze milk into the ducts. Glands on the areolaAreola:
The dark pigmented area of the breast that surrounds the nipple.
secrete small amounts of fluid to lubricate the nipple when breastfeeding.

Your breasts also contain lymph nodesLymph nodes:
Small structures that filter lymph fluid for harmful substances. They contain immune cells that can help fight infection by attacking and destroying germs. Cancer can travel through the lymphatic system spread to the lymph nodes.
joined by a network of lymph vesselsLymph vessels:
Ducts that carry lymph fluid through the lymphatic system.
, blood vessels, and nerves which provide feeling to the breast.




At different stages of a woman’s life, such as adolescence, pregnancy and menopauseMenopause:
A natural part of a woman's aging process, when the ovaries start to make less estrogen and progesterone and the menstrual periods stop. This change typically occurs between the late 40s and mid-to-late 50s.
, the breasts undergo normal changes.

During a woman’s menstrual cycle, her breast tissue is exposed to changing levels of female hormonesHormone:
A natural substance released into the body by the endocrine glands, such as the thyroid, adrenal gland or ovaries.
, estrogenEstrogen:
A female sex hormone that is produced mainly in the ovaries. A woman’s levels of estrogen fluctuate throughout her life. Estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer and may promote the growth of cancer cells.
and progesteroneProgesterone:
A female sex hormone released by the ovaries during the woman’s menstrual cycle to prepare the uterus for pregnancy and stimulate milk production in the breast. It is also one of the synthetic hormones used in hormone replacement therapy.
. In preparation for a possible pregnancy, estrogen stimulates the growth of the milk ducts, and progesterone stimulates the lobules. These changes can cause the breast to be become larger, feel lumpy, and be sore or tender as a woman gets closer to her getting her period.

To learn more, find out about the normal breast changes women experience at different stages of life.

 

Sources:

Canadian Cancer Society. Anatomy and Physiology of the Breast. Accessed March 12, 2014.

WebMD. Women’s Health: Picture of the Breasts. Accessed March 12, 2014.