As with our legs or our bellies, we might be proud of the way our breasts look, be embarrassed by them or not give them much thought -- that is, until they provoke wanted (or unwanted) attention, we see "perfect" ones in a magazine or movie, we become pregnant, or we worry about their health. In other words, there's a lot to consider about our bosom buddies.
Ages and stages
• In puberty, hormones kick in and the mammary ducts begin to stretch out, eventually developing a mature system of lobules (the glands that produce milk) and ducts (canals that transport the milk). The breasts don't stop growing until a woman is in her early 20s.
• During sexual activity, when a woman nears climax, her breasts swell slightly and the areola (the coloured area around the nipple) expands. Once climax is complete (after five to eight seconds), the areola shrinks to its normal size.
• During pregnancy, the number of lobules increases and they begin to produce milk.
• Breast-feeding not only supports a baby's development, but it's also good for the mom, too. Studies suggest that breast-feeding decreases risks for breast and ovarian cancers and osteoporosis.
• Women who breast-feed lose less blood after giving birth (because the uterus contracts faster) and tend to have more energy.
• Breast-feeding for at least six to nine months helps a woman lose fat from hard-to-lose places, such as the thighs.
• Breast-feeding may not permanently increase the size of a woman's breasts, says Dr. Bryan Callaghan, president of the Canadian Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in Toronto. Usually, if you're small before your baby has been weened, you'll be smaller after; if you're big before, you'll be bigger after.
• After menopause, the number of lobules decreases and those that remain shrink in size. Breast density (the amount of glandular and connective tissue) decreases and a larger percentage of the breast becomes fatty tissue.
Breast-feeding is easy, right? Not always. Here's why.
• Cracked nipples. This painful condition occurs when babies are not properly latching onto the breast, perhaps due to poor positioning, says Frances Jones, the coordinator of lactation services for B.C. Women's Hospital & Health Centre and the coordinator of B.C. Women's Human Milk Bank in Vancouver. Soothe the nipple with expressed milk and warm water after feeding. And use a lanolin-based emollient, such as Lansinoh or Purely Yours, to help heal and keep skin moist.
• Lactating women may develop breast lumps. These are commonly caused by blocked ducts, which breast-feeding and massage usually relieve. Sometimes mothers develop milk-retention cysts called galactoceles, which need to be drained by a doctor. There's no cause for concern, but any lump should be checked out if it doesn't go away in a day or two.
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• This is when one or both nipples are tucked into the breast. If your nipple has always been inverted, it is nothing to worry about.
• The odds are you can still breast-feed, although getting information prenatally, and skilled help immediately postpartum, is important.
• A plastic surgeon can perform a minor, but expensive, procedure to bring the nipple out. There are no guarantees that the procedure will be permanent, and once you have this procedure you may not be able to breast-feed.
• If your nipple suddenly becomes inverted, see a doctor right away. A sudden inversion can signal cancer.
Reduce your risk
• Be a nonsmoker and avoid secondhand smoke.
• Get 40 minutes of vigorous exercise such as brisk walking every day.
• Eat five to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit a day.
• Eat high-fibre, low-fat foods.
• Take regular saunas to sweat out environmental chemicals that may disrupt hormone function.
• Get vitamin D. Women who get lots of vitamin D may be less likely to develop breast cancer. Women 19 to 50 need 400 IU (international units) a day; those over 50 need 800 IU.
• Maintain a healthy body weight.
Breast reduction surgery
• Relieves back and shoulder pain and excessive sweating under the breasts (caused by breasts sitting on the chest).
• Is covered by provincial and territorial health insurance; talk to your plastic surgeon to learn more.
• Makes shopping for clothes easier.
• Decreases unwanted gawking.
• An estimated 16,053 women had breast reduction in Canada (36,461 women had breast augmentation) in 2005.
• Most women who consider breast reduction are a D-cup or larger, says Dr. Don Lalonde, president of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeon in Saint John, N.B.
• After surgery, you may not be able to breast-feed.
• Pregnancy may cause your breasts to balloon out again because of shifts in hormones and body weight.
• Limit alcohol consumption. The more you drink, the greater your risk. Limit yourself to no more than one drink per day, that is, 12 ounces (340 millilitres) of beer, five ounces
(142 millilitres) of wine or 1.5 ounces (42 millilitres) of spirits.
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A mammogram is an X-ray that can detect small suspect areas in the breast. Women aged 50 to 69 are advised to have a mammogram every two years, says Dr. Verna Mai, director of screening programs for Cancer Care Ontario. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer (on their mother's or their father's side) should have a mammogram every year, and your family doctor may suggest that screening begin at a younger age. Provincial breast screening programs provide women 50 years and over with mammography, a physical examination of breasts, information on breast self-examination and a reminder to return for screening.
Support your breasts
Whether you love lacy lingerie or prefer utilitarian styles, proper bra size is important, says Liliana Mann of Linea Intima lingerie stores in Toronto. It's smart to have a professional fitting because a bra that fits properly makes you feel and look your best. Comfort is another huge plus in a bra, and manufacturers are stepping up to the plate. Playtex has a Memory Foam bra that reacts to your body's temperature and movements and conforms to your unique shape, while WonderBra has developed a Comfort Closure bra with foam padding that cushions your back and smooth edges, which eliminates itching and scratching.
Take it off!
The job of the breasts' lymphatic system is to help eliminate toxins. Breast movement, exercise and deep breathing help pump lymphatic fluid through the lymphatic vessels, so go braless for as much of the day as possible, says Sat Dharam Kaur, a naturopathic doctor in Owen Sound, Ont., and author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast Cancer (Robert Rose, 2003). If large breasts make going braless uncomfortable, switch to a soft bra that has built-in comfort features such as a wide elasticized band that sits gently under the breasts. Deep-breathing exercises, as well as arm movements, help keep the lymphatic system working as well.
Bras for sports
A supportive bra during exercise helps combat premature sagging -- and helps maximize workouts, because you feel comfortable. The wrong bra (or no bra) increases your risk of "jogger's nipple," caused by friction from clothing when you exercise.
Features to look for in a good sports bra:
• Separate cups, or forms.
• Wide shoulder straps.
• Low stretchability for support.
• Bounce control (go through various motions to make sure it performs for you).
• Snap closure for ease in putting the bra on and taking it off.
• Breathable fabrics, such as mesh, or fleece-lined cups to reduce dampness and alleviate chafing.
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