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Five Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About Your Breast Health

By Heather Maloney
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff

Jennifer Gross, a nurse practitioner in the BreastCare Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, addresses some of the most common questions on breast health.

Q. I have been experiencing breast pain. What could be causing this?

Jennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RNJennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RN: Breast pain is an exceedingly common problem that can occur at any stage of life, though it is most common in women who have not yet gone through menopause (it can often be experienced during the perimenopausal period). Many women will notice pain or tenderness prior to the onset of their menstrual cycle, and usually this is not something to be concerned about. Benign cysts and hormone fluctuations can also contribute to breast pain, and often the pain will go away on its own. Breast pain is not typically associated with breast cancer. If it persists, you should be evaluated by your health care provider.

Q. I noticed a pinkish discharge from my nipple. Should I be concerned?

Jennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RN: In general, discharge is more suspicious if it comes out spontaneously, is bloody, occurs only on one side, and if it doesn't go away on its own. When it occurs bilaterally (on both sides) or only when the nipples are squeezed, it's not as concerning. Causes of nipple discharge can include a benign growth within the ducts, an alteration in hormones, and less likely, cancer. If you are concerned, you should see your health care provider, and if the discharge is spontaneous and/or occurs only on one side, it definitely warrants evaluation.

Q. Do I really need to do self breast exams?

Jennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RN: Self breast exams are important because they help you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel, which may make it easier to notice any changes. Many women only focus on whether there are any lumps, and they overlook the significance of visual changes. It's important to look at your breasts in a mirror so you can see if you notice anything different. Look for any changes in texture of the skin, discoloration, dimpling or puckering, and any change in the nipples. If you notice anything that seems different to you, you should see your health care provider.

Q. Is it normal for my breasts to be slightly different sizes?

Jennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RN: Yes, this is completely normal; in fact, most women do have one breast that is slightly larger than the other at baseline. If you notice a sudden change in size, however, you should contact your health care provider.

Q. I hear a lot about a "family history of breast cancer." Can you explain what this means?

Jennifer Gross, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, MS, RN: A strong family history of breast cancer is defined in a few different ways: it can mean multiple members of your family have had breast cancer, a first degree relative (a mother, sister or daughter) has had breast cancer, or a woman in your family was diagnosed before menopause or before age 50. If any of these circumstances apply to you, you should see your health care provider so he or she can determine if you would benefit from genetic testing, earlier mammograms, or other preventative measures.

Make an Appointment at the BreastCare Center

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted March 2012

Contact Information

BreastCare Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clinical Center, 5th floor 
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-667-2900
Fax: 617-667-9711