Some women worry that their breasts are too big, too small or not as firm and youthful as they once were. But there’s one thing that every woman wants - healthy breasts for life.
As you enter your 30s, 40s, and 50s, your breasts will change along with the rest of you. In your childbearing years, you may wonder whether breastfeeding will affect your shape. After menopause, you might be more concerned about the risk of breast cancer. On the next page, breast specialists guide us through the decades.
Your breasts in your 30s
During your 30s, hormones like estrogen help to keep breasts firm. Breasts contain no muscles. They consist of fibrous tissue and fatty tissue. They also consist of dense glandular tissue that includes milk-producing glands called lobules and ducts to carry the milk.
Fortunately, in your 30s, breast problems tend to be benign non-cancerous. Younger women commonly experience fibrocystic breast disease, a broad term that is characterized by breast pain, cysts and non-cancerous lumpiness. Fibroadenomas can also affect women in their 30s. These rubbery lumps made of fibrous and glandular tissue are not cancerous, but they can hurt.
During this childbearing decade, breastfeeding offers mothers some long-term protection against breast cancer. Some women worry that breastfeeding will cause breast sagging but experts say that nursing does not cause breast tissue to droop. Instead, breast swelling during lactation can stretch the skin over the breast
According to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), when you are 30, your chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer are one in 1,900 and by age 40, one in 200. Unless there is a strong family history of breast cancer, women in their 30s do not need mammogram screening.
However, regular manual breast examinations by your doctor are crucial to check for lumps, skin dimpling and other signs of breast cancer. Experts recommend being “breast aware” and self-examining your breasts at least once a month to familiarize yourself with the way your breasts feel so that you can report any changes to your doctor.
Your breasts in your 40s
During your 40s, most women’s breasts continue to change shape.
As the years go by, breasts become less glandular and fattier, which makes them less firm. Another factor is the stretching of fibrous bands in the breast called Cooper’s ligaments. These fibrous tissues help hold up the breasts, but they can stretch over time and this can lead to some sagging.
There is little you can do to slow down or prevent sagging. However, some doctors advise women to wear sports bras when jogging to prevent bouncing that can stretch the ligaments.
Cysts are the most common type of breast lump seen in women during their 40s, although cysts can develop at other ages too, says the Revlon/UCLA Breast Centre. These fluid-filled sacs are not cancerous, but they can be painful. Doctors can drain or surgically remove them. Changes like atypical ductal hyperplasia may also begin during this decade. These abnormal cells in the milk ducts increase a woman’s chances of breast cancer.
While most changes are not caused by cancer, CRUK recommends reporting any of the following to your doctor:
- changes in the size, shape or feel of your breasts
- a new lump or thickening in one breast or under an armpit
- any puckering, redness or dimpling of the skin
- changes in the position of the nipple, a rash or nipple discharge
- pain or discomfort that is new to you and only felt on one side
Your breasts in your 50s
After menopause, the breasts not only become fattier but will shrink because women no longer need the milk-producing glands for breastfeeding.
Breast cancer risk rises during this decade and by the age of 50, the risk of breast cancer rises to one in 50. At this point, it is a good idea to go for breast screening.
While harmless lumps may come and go with the menstrual cycle in younger women, any new lump that appears after menopause requires a doctor’s prompt attention. Most breast cancers occur in women over age 50. At that age, the likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer is one in 50, and by age 60, it’s one in 23, says CRUK.
The good news is that doctors find it easier to detect breast cancers in older women because breast density is less likely to obscure tumours. It is also sensible to keep your weight under control. Research has shown that the chances of developing breast cancer after menopause are higher in overweight or obese women.