Owner's Manual: Listen to Your Breasts

They get loads of attention from Hollywood (and men who talk straight to your chest). But our breasts don't always get the care — or support — they deserve. Take the time to be good to your girls.

Diagram of breast anatomy

The Vitals

1 lb: The weight of an average breast.

36D: The most popular bra size, which
continues to trend upward, according to retailers.

286,000: The number of breast implant procedures
performed in the U.S. in 2014. They're declining slightly in popularity, but
augmentation is still the top cosmetic surgery.

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What's In There, Anyway?

No two pairs are identical, but all breasts are made up of the same structures: fat, milk-making glandular tissue (which includes the lobules and ducts), and connective tissue. It's normal for breasts to have a lumpy consistency, but tell your doctor if you notice something that feels different from the rest of the area. (Imagine a hard, out-of-place rock in a bag of frozen peas.) If your mammogram shows lots of tissue and less fat, you have what are called dense breasts, which make the x-rays hard to read, since both tissue and tumors appear white.

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Your Anti-Sag Plan

Some degree of droop is ­inevitable: As you age, the ligaments that tether the breasts to the chest wall may stretch. Also, most women's breasts get heavier, which sends them south. It's unlike us to say this, but ­exercise could actually make sagging worse. Some research suggests that when we run, jump — even walk briskly — breasts don't just bounce up and down; they swing in a figure eight pattern, which may further damage the ligaments. That's no excuse to become a couch potato, since staying active may help ward off breast cancer. Just choose a well-fitting sports bra that has separate cups for each breast — this has been shown to reduce movement better than "uniboob" compression types.

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Aah, Relief

Achy boobs? Stay calm — most breast pain isn't a sign of something serious. Your hormones are often to blame: Two weeks before menstruation, fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone can cause water retention. Breasts balloon, and the extra volume may lead to tenderness, perhaps because nerves in the area are compressed, says Mark David Pearlman, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan. Try popping an over-the-counter painkiller like ibuprofen or applying warm or cold compresses. But if chest pain is localized to a single spot or is sudden and sharp, get it checked out by your doctor.

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Make Sense of Screenings

Confused about mammograms? Step one: Talk to your doc.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or carry the BRCA gene: You'll likely need more frequent screenings. If your parent or sibling had or has breast cancer, it's best to be screened 10 years ­before the age they were when diagnosed. Otherwise…

If you're in your forties: Some recommendations suggest starting mammograms at 40; others say to wait until 50. Make the choice with your doctor, discussing the fact that screening might spot a harmless irregularity (called a false positive), which can lead to unnecessary treatment and anxiety.

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