The breast exam lesson I was given by a doctor many years ago was a reminder to practice a routine based on fear, looking for suspicious changes in shape, and feeling for “lumps.” I was focused on finding a problem, which is important, but not on getting to know my own healthy breasts or maintaining their health. We need more talk about awareness of breast health. Here is a quick guide to maintaining healthy breasts, both female and male.
Get to know it!
Few women get to know their own breasts until there is a problem; even fewer men know theirs. A monthly self-exam is certainly a good start, but it’s not enough. Basic breast exam information provides no explanation about the range of variation of healthy breast tissue. Yes, guys have breast tissue as well. And, although male breast cancer is rare, it’s almost always fatal due to late detection.
Breast tissue can extend toward the clavicle (collar bone) and into the axilla (arm pit). As most women know, breasts can be bigger on one side than the other. This is okay.
Few of us, female or male, were aware of normal stages of breast development, and fewer of us know anything about involution—that tissue is supposed to change over time. Breast tissue, female or male, eventually turns to fat. It naturally becomes saggy. This is not a sign of failure of character nor is it a sign of ill-fitting bras. It just happens. To everyone. Just accept it. In the same way that the thymus gland turned to fat in our teens, mammary glands do the same later in life.
Breast tissue lies in front of the muscular wall of the chest. Since there are no intrinsic muscles, drainage of venous blood and lymph through breast tissue relies on mechanics outside of itself. Although a direct link between cancer and wearing a bra is not proven, it’s a no-brainer that tight-fitting garments restrict the movement of lymph and venous blood. Whenever possible, let breast tissue move freely! Stretch your arms overhead, extend your ribcage laterally, rotate the neck and shoulders to loosen the muscles and joints that surround the breasts. Gentle self-massage is a great way to further enhance circulation through breast tissue. And ladies, if you notice denser tissue along the edge where your underwire rests, target this area. Do be gentle; even though it is dense, it is not muscle, so deep pressure is a bad idea.
The good news is that almost all breasts (yes, male and female alike) are kind of lumpy. Breast tissue can be dense or loose, and it can vary in the same person. Breast tissue, female or male, can have fibrotic areas. Massaging your breast tissue daily in addition to examining it monthly gives you much more data for monitoring changes. Improved circulation is good for easing tenderness and lumpiness. Breast massage can address swelling and pain associated with the menstrual cycle and nursing, as well as soreness from injury and surgery.
It’s one thing to massage your own body; it’s quite another to be fully relaxed and receive a professional therapeutic massage. Breast area massage work not only treats breast tissue (including scar tissue) directly, it also benefits shoulder, neck, and upper back areas, not to mention respiration, circulation, and digestion. And of course it promotes self-acceptance, and a loving attitude toward oneself!
Breast tissue massage is legal in Utah, but women must sign a consent form that outlines a plan of treatment; men don’t have to. It is illegal to work the nipple and areola on either women or men. Look for a therapist with training in manual lymph drainage, lymph drainage therapy, visceral manipulation (thorax work), and/or one who has been certified in breast massage. Most basic massage school certifications do not include any of this; some do. Practitioners usually have advanced and specific training. Check before you book your appointment.
A massage is not an exam. Practice both, and spread the word about breast health awareness.
Marlena Lambert is a licensed massage therapist, and an adjunct professor for yoga and meditation in the College of Nursing at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.