There is no self-care without breast care. In cultural imagination, breasts are either over-sexualised or the public health conversation is skewed towards breastfeeding and cancer. But breast health matters way beyond this, and is an indicator of our overall hormonal health.
Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of preventative impetus towards this, because there is worryingly little awareness that younger women can have breast-related diseases as well.
So, on this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are 5 things no one tells you about your breasts.
Breast and gut:
In medical parlance, the gut is now called the “second brain”, and it’s for a reason. A majority of chronic health conditions can be linked to poor gut health, and now, science shows linkages between gut health and breast health. An unhealthy gut triggers changes in normal breast tissue that help breast cancer spread to other parts of the body, new research has revealed. This points towards important strides forward in cancer prevention, and assessing risk factors.
Breast pain and periods:
Breast pain, tenderness, and swelling affect about 7 out of 10 people in peak reproductive years, especially right before periods. Scientific studies show conflicting results on the reason for this, but many experts attribute this to hormonal fluctuations. Estrogen and progesterone both increase during the second half of the menstrual cycle, causing breast ducts to enlarge, and that causes soreness in breasts. Some women are more sensitive to these hormonal fluctuations. This is called cyclical mastalgia.
This is not a risk factor for cancer in and of itself, but it is important to monitor if your pain is lingering. For relief, you must try more supportive bras with the right fitting, warm or cold compresses, using primrose oil for a light massage, and diet changes.
Lumps can be benign:
Not all lumps mean cancer. This is important to note because an accidental discovery of lumps in women often worry them, and people delay doctor visits out of fear. Benign lumps in the breasts can be cysts or fibroadenomas, and your doctor can diagnose them for you easily. These benign lumps can be caused by inflammation, some breast infection that has been ignored, or due to the impact of hormonal medication. Doctors might want to do further imaging tests to confirm any risk factors. Again, this is getting increasingly common among women in their 20s and 30s.
Breast density & why it matters:
One piece of the breast health puzzle is something called breast density, around which there is a lot of misinformation. About 50% of women have dense breasts. This simply means that they have more fibrous and glandular tissue. How does this impact breast health exactly? From the perspective of diagnosis and screening, it is an important factor. Dense breasts make it harder for doctors to see breast cancers on mammograms. This increases the risk that cancers will be missed.
In some places in the world, like Connecticut, doctors are obligated to inform their patients that they have dense breasts. However, contrary to myth, having dense breasts is very normal. It is not a medical condition itself, and it does not cause symptoms.
India’s Low Breast Cancer Survival Rates:
The average survival rates for breast cancer across the world, including US and Australia are as high as 90%, whereas in India it is 66%. The core reason for this is the lack of awareness around timely preventative and regular screening. Data shows that a majority of cancer cases that get diagnosed in India are already in the second, third or fourth stages because people are often not able to identify the early signs of breast cancer. The lack of availability and affordability of diagnostics in major geographies also is a bottleneck.
Truth be told, the healthcare conversation for women is still angled towards fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood, and we forget that women require specialised care across life stages. Breast health conversations must therefore be a robust part of public health messaging for prevention, care and cure.
Swarnima Bhattacharya is the Co-founder & Chief Product Officer of Gytree. Views expressed by the author are their own
Suggested Reading: Back To Work And Breastfeeding? 4 Challenges And Their Solutions