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A woman's breasts naturally undergo changes throughout her lifetime; these may be brought about by pregnancy, breastfeeding, hormonal effects related to menopause, and weight gain or loss. Although many breast changes are normal, some may not be.

Breast cancer is increasing in incidence across the world; therefore women are encouraged to be Breast Aware. This is very important for women irrespective of their age as it is essential for effective prevention and management of breast cancer. Any changes in your breasts should not be ignored and should be checked by your family doctor.

Mastalgia

Mastalgia is the term (name) used for breast pain. It affects around 70% of women at some time during their lives. Mastalgia is so common that it can be seen as normal and not as a disease. Some women experience severe discomfort due to hormonal changes in the breast related to their menstrual cycle. Although breast pain is not usually a sign of cancer, you should see your doctor if mastalgia is a symptom which you have not experienced before.

Mastalgia can be broken down into 3 groups:

  • cyclic mastalgia
  • non-cyclic mastalgia
  • extra mammary mastalgia

Cyclic mastalgia refers to breast pain that varies in intensity according to the phase of your menstrual cycle. This type of breast pain usually affects women in their 20s and 30s and is believed to be caused by hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. 

Non-cyclic mastalgia refers to breast pain that is unrelated to your menstrual cycle. This type of pain most frequently occurs in women in their 40s. The pain may come and go, or be continuous. Sometimes no cause can be found for this type of breast pain.

Extra mammary mastalgia refers to breast pain that is cause by something other than the breast tissue such as; injury to muscles, ribs or ligaments near the breast.

For more information on management of mastalgia please refer to the mastalgia factsheet at the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute [BCI] here.

Healthy lifestyle choices

Healthy lifestyle choices such as being physically active, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol and eating a well-balanced diet may help lower your risk of breast cancer. Not only can these factors reduce your risk but is also good for your overall health.

For more information on diet, lifestyle and breast cancer risk please refer to fact sheets at the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute [BCI] here.

Checking your breasts

Every woman's breasts are unique. You may have lumpy breasts, one breast larger than the other, or breasts that are different to each other in shape. Being Breast Aware means becoming familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts. Checking your breasts regularly will make it more likely that you notice any changes.

Most women find their breasts easier to examine just after their period when any premenstrual lumpiness and pain has settled. There is no right or wrong way to check your breasts. Try to get used to looking at and feeling your breasts at a time that is comfortable for you. This could be in the shower, bath or when you are getting dressed.

Remember that most breast changes are not caused by cancer, but you should always have any changes checked by your GP. Do not simply make an appointment for a free mammogram as you may need other tests, like a breast ultrasound, which you doctor will decide on. Please refer to the breast changes fact sheet on the BCI page.

To learn more about breast health and breast cancer visit the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute website.

By checking your breasts regularly you will be more likely to notice changes. You should report any unusual breast changes to your doctor as soon as possible.