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October 11, 2023

Breast Health 101: A Comprehensive Guide From Your Primary Care Provider with Carter Gitlin, DNP, FNP

by Carter Gitlin, DNP, FNP

Breast health is a vital aspect of overall well-being, and as your primary care provider, I’m here to guide you through Breast Health 101. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the importance of breast health, understand breast anatomy, discuss self-exams, and learn about early detection and preventive measures. Empowering yourself with knowledge and taking proactive steps can help ensure that your breast health is in good hands.

1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. However, if detected early in the localized stage and treated, the relative 5-year survival rate is 99% (from Breast Cancer Facts & Stats | Incidence, Age, Survival, & More ( This makes early detection through routine self-breast exams and recommended screenings imperative to breast health and your overall well-being.

Breast Anatomy

To understand breast health, it’s crucial to first grasp the basics of breast anatomy. The breasts consist of glandular tissue, fatty tissue, and connective tissue. Glandular tissue contains lobules that produce milk, while ducts transport milk to the nipple. The fatty tissue provides the breast’s shape and size, while connective tissue helps maintain the breast’s structure.

Breast Health Importance

Breast health is not just about the absence of disease; it’s about maintaining optimal well-being. Here are a few key reasons why breast health matters:

Early Detection: Early detection of breast issues, including cancer, can significantly improve treatment outcomes. Regular breast health practices can help spot potential problems in their initial stages.

Emotional Well-being: Maintaining breast health can reduce anxiety and stress associated with breast-related concerns. Knowledge and self-care can empower individuals to take control of their health.

Quality of Life: Good breast health contributes to an improved quality of life. It ensures that you can continue to engage in daily activities without discomfort or pain.

Breast Self-Exams

One of the most crucial aspects of breast health is regular self-exams. Almost 40% of breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump. (from Breast Self-Exam – National Breast Cancer Foundation)

Self-exams are simple and can be performed in the privacy of your own home. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Choose a Consistent Time

Pick a time each month when your breasts are least likely to be tender or swollen. Many women choose to perform self-exams a few days after their menstrual period ends. Post menopausal women should choose the same day of each month.

Visual Inspection

Begin by standing in front of a mirror with your arms at your sides. Look for any changes in the size, shape, or appearance of your breasts. Note any skin changes, such as dimpling, redness, or puckering.

Raise Your Arms

Raise your arms above your head and check for the same changes while keeping an eye on your breasts’ symmetry.

Palpation (Breast Tissue Examination)

Lie down on your back with one arm raised above your head, and using the pads of your fingers on your opposite hand, press gently but firmly on your breast tissue in a circular motion. Cover the entire breast, including the armpit area. Pay attention to any lumps, thickening, or changes in texture.

It is also beneficial to palpate your breasts while standing. Many women chose to do this in the shower. The steps are similar to those done while lying on your back. It is important to remember to raise the arm of the breast you are inspecting in order to spread the breast tissue evenly. You will follow the same pattern of palpation as mentioned above.

Nipple Inspection

Check your nipples for any unusual discharge, changes in position, or inversion.

Repeat on the Other Side

Perform the same steps on your other breast.

If you notice any changes, it’s essential to reach out to your healthcare provider for a professional evaluation. Remember that self-exams are not a substitute for regular mammograms or clinical breast exams, which are also essential for breast health.

Breast Health Screenings

Regular breast screenings are essential for early detection of breast-related issues. Two primary screening methods are mammograms and clinical breast exams:

  1. Mammograms: Mammography is an X-ray of the breast tissue used to detect breast cancer in its early stages. They are helpful in detecting breast cancer in women who may not have any signs or symptoms. Women are typically advised to start regular mammograms at around the age of 40, although individual recommendations may vary based on family history and risk factors.
  2. Clinical Breast Exams: A clinical breast exam is performed by a healthcare provider during your regular check-up. They will visually inspect and palpate your breasts to check for any abnormalities. It is generally recommended to have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years starting in your 20s and every year after 40.

Breast Health Risk Factors

Understanding your risk factors for breast health issues is essential. Some factors that may increase your risk include:

  • Family History: A family history of breast cancer can increase your risk, especially if a close relative had it.
  • Age: As you get older, your risk of breast cancer increases.
  • Genetic Mutations: Certain genetic mutations, like BRCA1 and BRCA2, can increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy: Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and a sedentary lifestyle may contribute to a higher risk.

Preventive Measures

Maintaining breast health isn’t just about early detection; it’s also about prevention. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Healthy Lifestyle: Maintain a balanced diet, exercise regularly, limit alcohol consumption, and avoid smoking to promote overall well-being.
  • Breastfeeding: If you have the opportunity, consider breastfeeding your children, as it may reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • Hormone Therapy: If you’re considering hormone replacement therapy, discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider and explore alternative options.
  • Regular Screenings: Adhere to recommended screening guidelines, including mammograms and clinical breast exams, based on your age and risk factors.

Breast health is an integral part of your overall well-being. Understanding breast anatomy, performing regular self-exams, and adhering to recommended screening guidelines are essential steps in maintaining breast health. Moreover, identifying risk factors and adopting a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of breast-related issues. Remember that your primary care provider is here to support you on your journey towards optimal breast health, so don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns. Empower yourself with knowledge and proactive measures, because your breast health matters.

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