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The purpose of this guide is to teach and inform both women and men about female breast anatomy and physiology (functioning). The guide includes information on breast anatomy, breast development, breast size & shape, lactation (the making of milk), and breast diseases.
Though the sole function of the breast is to produce and distribute milk to the newborn through lactation, in our society the breast is a sexual symbol. In this capacity, the breast can be both a stimulation and a nuisance. For many women (and men), breasts can be an intensely pleasurable part of sexual activity. Some women can even reach orgasm from breast and nipple stimulation alone. At other times breasts can be an inconvenience or worse (e.g., running, unwanted attention, sexual harassment).
Fears relating to the breast range from anxiety about breast size and shape to the often overwhelming fears of cancer and disease. In our society, the female breast is a complex and important part of a woman’s body. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes – small, large, saggy, lumpy, firm, and so on. It is normal and quite common for one breast to be a different size and shape than another breast on the same woman as shown in the 1906 Picasso painting, Nu sur le fond rouge (click on the image for more information). Nipples also come in all shapes and sizes and the areola (the darker area surrounding the nipple) can be big or little, light or dark, and differ from one breast to another on the same woman.
A breast’s shape is essentially determined by the amount of fatty tissue it contains. Under the skin, a breast is made up of fatty tissue, milk glands (where milk is made by specialized cells), milk ducts, and the nipple. (lactiferous ducts)
Milk glands produce milk when triggered by the hormones of pregnancy, at which point they lactate as much milk as is needed by the baby (often more than a quart a day)! Therefore, during pregnancy and nursing, a woman’s breast become much larger than when not pregnant because it is literally full of milk and bigger glandular tissue.
Click on the drawing or photo of the breast to see other views. When you are ready to move on, click the Breast Development button in the left frame.
The preadolescent breast (known medically as Stage 1 per Tanner’s sex maturity ratings) consists of a small elevated nipple with no significant underlying breast tissue. (Tanner’s stages are based on studies of white English girls. An American survey found that black girls tended to mature more quickly). Genital and pubic hair development is also classified by Tanner.
Puberty begins (usually between ages of 8 and 13; average age is 11) with the development of breast tissue and pubic hair. Due to the hormonal changes of puberty, breast buds form. This second stage of breast development is the breast bud stageand both the breast and nipple elevate as a small mound. The areola also begins to enlarge and milk ilk ducts inside the breast begin to grow.
In Stage 3, there is additional enlargement and elevation of the breast and areola (with no separation of their contours) The areola begins to darken and the milk ducts give rise to milk glands that also begin to grow.
Next, there is projection of the areola and nipple to form a secondary mound (Stage 4).
In the mature adult breast (Stage 5), only the nipple projects (though in some woman the areola continues to form a secondary mound).
The breasts of an aging woman shrink as milk glands degrade. The breasts often sag as this occurs and as the effects of gravity pull the breast tissue downwards.
SIZE & SHAPE
Breasts come in all shapes and sizes depending on the amount of fatty tissue.Breast size and shape is generally described through classifications of the Bra & Lingerie industry. Use our standardized technique to determine your correct bra and cup size. Prior to World War I,female breasts were stuffed into corsets and other single-fabric contraptions. The precursor to the two cup bra was designed by a woman named Caresse Crosby. When she sold the patent for her concept -two handkerchiefs sewn together with attached ribbon straps- in 1913, the 11.3 billion lingerie business was born. Caresse’s flimsy bras eventually evolved to more constrictive undergarments. Bra manufacturers (run by men) began to sew the bras to girdles and tightly bound the wearer. These slowly evolved into pointy bras of the 1950s. (Is it any wonder why the woman’s liberation movement began with folk burning their bras?)
Modern bras are more functional and comfortable, and provide support while “helping” a woman’s figure to conform to current societal norms. Brassiere manufacturers have come up with nomenclature to standardize their products. Chest size is actually measured through the diameter of the rib cage below the breasts and adding 5. Cup Size is a measure of the volume of the breast and is denoted by the first letters of the alphabet. Click here to calculate your correct breast and bra size.
The photographs below show examples of varying breast and cup sizes. (Please note, sizes labeled below are estimated and may not be correct.)
Breasts are usually asymmetrical meaning that one breast may be a different size or shape than the other. A woman’s left breast is usually a little larger than her right breast, though this is only a generalization. (For the record, it is also quite common for men to have one testicle that is a different size or shape than the other – see our Male Genitalia Kit for more details.) The woman shown has a left breast that is larger than her right breast, in fact, many of the photos above show breast asymmetry.
Inverted nipples are also quite common, though not a problem unless they cause difficulty during nursing. Special nipple cups can be used to help during lactation. A nipple that previously was not inverted but then became inverted is a warning sign of breast cancer and needs to be brought to the attention of a doctor (see the Breast Disease section).
Nipple hair is also quite common . For some women a number of straight strands of dark hair grow from the outer border of the areola. Occasionally nipple hair is excessive (and usually associated with an increase in total body hair). When there is excessive hair on a woman, it is called hirsuitism (see photo). Hirsuitism is usually due to hormones, though in rare circumstances it can be caused by a hormone-producing tumor. Excessive hair growth should therefore be discussed with your family physician.
Breasts and bras can be classified as follows (from smallest to largest): A, B, C, D, and DD F, G, H (and larger) also exist. The largest bra sizes are often needed by very large-breasted women or women whose size increases with pregnancy and nursing. A training bra for developing girls (usually Tanner stage 2, 3, or 4) is also available and is smaller than the A cup. This is sometimes called AA. (also known as Double D or sometimes called E). Though less common, the larger cup sizes of (double A)
Cup Size: AA
Cup Size: A
Cup Size: B
Cup Size: C
Cup Size: D
Cup Size: DD (E) or larger
LACTATION & NURSING
Despite its role as an object of human sexuality, the biological purpose of the breast is to nourish a child. Lactation (the act of producing and releasing milk) is a complicated process that begins during pregnancy when increased levels of estrogen and progesterone cause milk glands (see anatomy of breast) to grow for making milk. Following childbirth, a hormone from the brain (prolactin) causes the milk glands to make milk. When the newborn baby then sucks the nipple, a nerve impulse travels from the breast to the brain and causes another chemical (oxytocin) to be released. Oxytocin then causes the milk glands and milk ducts to contract, releasing milk into the sucking baby’s mouth.
Because the milk produced by the breast is unique, attempts by pharmaceutical companies to duplicate it have been only partially successful. Nursing allow a special bond and closeness between mother and infant and the breast milk has the exact proportion of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water that a newborn child requires. Breast milk also contains thousands of different antibodies to protect the baby from potential infections (baby formula has none). Studies have shown that nursed infants (compared with those that are fed formula) have a lower risk of ear infections, diarrheal illnesses, allergies, and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Breast fed babies also have been shown to have a higher IQ then those fed formula (though we don’t yet know the reason!)
So in spite of this, why do some people decide to bottle feed instead of nurse? Reasons include personal discomfort (though when done correctly it shouldn’t hurt) to embarrassment, the need to return to work (though breast pumps have made pumping and storing milk quite easy). In addition, millions of advertising dollars have encouraged women to use formula instead of nursing despite the proven benefits of the latter. Very rarely, a medical reason will require a mother to bottle-feed instead of nurse. For more information on nursing, be sure to check out our links in the conclusion section.
Like any part of the body, the breast can be afflicted with disease. Mastitis and breast abscesses are relatively common infections that are usually cured with antibiotics and/or surgical drainage (pictured). The dry itchy skin of eczema can affect the breast skin as well as anywhere else on the body, and is treated the same way (with moisturizer and possibly topical steroids).
A common problem previously called fibrocystic “disease”, is actually not a disease (photo, arrow). Fibrocystic breasts have small lumps, bumps, swellings, and occasional discomfort. These changes generally occur during the 20’s or 30’s, though some women will get it with their first period (usually around age 12). Contrary to previous medical opinion, recent studies have shown that the fibrocystic condition does not increase ones chance of developing breast cancer or other problems. This fibrocystic change (or condition) has been found to affect 60% to 90% of woman.
Fibroadenomas and larger breast cysts (fluid-filled pocket) pose a more difficult problem since they can cause discomfort and need to be proven that they are not cancer before they can be ignored.
The most serious and concerning breast disease is, unsurprisingly, breast cancer. Afflicting 1 out of 9 women , breast cancer can cause severe disability and death if left undiagnosed and untreated. That being said, breast cancer is curable if detected and dealt with early. Click here to learn how to detect breast cancer early.
Some risk factors for developing Breast Cancer
AGE: The peak time for developing breast cancer is following menopause (about age 50 and older). It is rare for women under 20 years old.
GEOGRAPHY: For reasons unknown, breast cancer is 5 times more common in the United States than in Japan and Taiwan.
FAMILY HISTORY: There is a strong genetic component to this disease, so women whose mother or sister (e.g., a first degree relative) experienced breast cancer are themselves at an increased risk.
LENGTH OF REPRODUCTIVE LIFE: Risk increases with early menarche (one’s first period) and late menopause (last period).
CHILDBIRTH: Breast cancer occurs more commonly in woman who have NOT had any children during their life. Risk also increases if you were older than 30 when you had your first child.
OBESITY: An increased risk of breast cancer has been found in women who are more than 30% overweight.
PREVIOUS BREAST CANCER: Having had a cancer in one’s breast (or uterus) increases the risk of getting a new breast cancer.
DIET: Some studies have shown that high-fat diets and moderate alcohol use also increase the risk of breast cancer slightly.
BREAST SELF EXAM (BSE)
Breast cancer can be a deadly disease if not caught early and treated appropriately through medicine, surgery, radiation, or some combination of these. There are three ways that, when combined, can significantly improve your chance of diagnosing breast cancer while it is easily treatable. These three ways are 1. Breast Self-Exam, 2. Annual breast exam by your physician, and 3. Annual mammograms from the age of 40.
1. Breast Self-Exam
Examining your own breasts each month is important. Finding a new lump and bringing it to the attention of your physician can help you catch breast cancer before it can spread. Because most breasts are lumpy and bumpy, the real benefits of breast self-exam only occur once you have “learned” which lumps and bumps are normally in your breast. Usually you can determine which bumps are always in the same spot and not growing after you have done breast self-exams for about 6 months in a row. (Please feel free to print this page and use it as a reminder.)
When to do it.
The best time to do a breast self-exam is about a week after your period ends since at other times during your cycle your breasts may be more tender and lumpy (from the effects of hormones in your blood). If your periods are irregular, do a breast self-exam on the same day of each month. It is important to get in the habit of doing it each and every month.
Where to do it.
It doesn’t matter where you do the breast self-exam, as long as you do it. Many women find it convenient and easy to do it while taking a shower: soapy hands glide better over wet skin and make it easier to feel the lumps and bumps.
How to do it.
” Place your right arm above your head as shown in the drawing. Use the tips of your three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in your right breast.
” Press firmly enough to know how your breast feels. A firm ridge in the lower curve of each breast is normal.
” Always examine your breasts the same way. As pictured, going around your breast in a circular pattern from the outside to the inside (nipple) is one technique. Another way is to feel from your nipple outwards, like spokes on a wheel. Ask your doctor to show you how to do it if you have questions. Be sure to feel on the side of your breast, as well as the upper part of the breast. Many people forget this tissue, and nearly 60% of breast cancers form here.
” Work to remember how your breast feels from month to month. The goal is to become familiar with what lumps and bumps are there from month to month so you can tell if a new one is forming or if one seems to be getting bigger.
” Repeat the process on your left breast, using the fingers of your right hand.
” If you find any lump, thickening, or changes in your breast tissue, tell your doctor.
2. Annual Exam (by your physician)
Beginning around the age of 20, your doctor will begin to conduct annual breast exams. This is done to search for suspicious lumps or bumps. Doctors also look for other hints of cancer, including breast asymmetry (though as noted previously, some degree of asymmetry is normal). After feeling each breast in a circular motion, the doctor may have you sit up to look for asymmetry. The doctor may ask you to raise your hands above your head, then put your hands on your hips. Other maneuvers can also help the doctor find a potential problem.
3. Mammography (pictured)
You should have an X-ray of your breasts (mammogram) each year beginning at age 40 (earlier if you have certain other risk factors such as a family history of breast cancer). Many studies have shown that annual mammograms can detect tiny cancers that are too small to be seen or felt, and long before they have a chance to spread. Despite the recommendations of most doctors and health-care organizations, half of women don’t get this X-ray! Fear of breast discomfort and fear of what might be found are two major reasons why not. Though the test can be somewhat uncomfortable, the potential benefits (catching a deadly cancer before it can kill you) clearly outweigh the minor discomfort.
This online guide has answered questions afraidtoask.com has been asked about the female breast. Its purpose is to serve as a basic introduction and guide to the anatomy and physiology of this organ, while concurrently alerting you to some of the warning signs and ways to avoid disease. If you have other questions or concerns about your health and body, we recommend asking your own physician. Most doctors discuss these “personal” questions on a daily basis, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Much of the information in this guide is from an excellent book called Our Bodies, Ourselves: a book by and for women. In addition to anatomy and physiology, this book contains detailed information on sexuality, including masturbation, heterosexuality, homosexuality, pregnancy, and contraception.
Other recommended readings include:
Our Bodies, Ourselves for the older woman. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book has received much critical acclaim. It is up to date and informative. What’s Happening to My Body? A Book for Girls, A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters. Changes in You and Me A Book About Puberty, Mostly for Boys Getting Breastfeeding Right for You An Illustrated Guide on nursing.
Good website links that give more detailed and accurate information are listed below.
CancerNet has detailed information on essentially all cancers, including breast, ovary, uterine, and more. A good handbook with details on the breast can be found at the EduCare website. Yahoo has a good listing of other breast cancer related links. The American Academy of Family Physicians has information as well as a list of qualified physicians in your area. An in-depth and moving photo essay of a woman’s experience with mastectomy and breast cancer. And, of course, our Sexually Transmitted Disease Guide is an excellent resource for information and photographs.
We hope you have enjoyed your online experience at AfraidToAsk.com. Thank you again for supporting our site!
During the pubertal years (usually between ages of 8 and 13; average age is 11), the vulva and internal genitals grow to their adult size. Just as breast development is staged, the medical way of gauging the level of development is to use Tanner‘s sexual maturity rating. Tanner’s classification of sexual maturity looks at pubic hair growth to determine the level of development.
|Stage 1||Stage 2||Stage 3||Stage 4||Stage 5|
The Stage 1 preadolescent has no pubic hair except for a fine “peach fuzz” body hair.
In Stage 2, there is sparse growth of long, slightly darkened, downy hair mostly along the labia. This hair is usually straight or only slightly curled.
In Stage 3, the pubic hair becomes darker, coarser, and curlier. It now grows sparsely over the mons veneris area.
In Stage 4, the hair grows in more densely. It becomes as coarse and curly as in the adult, but there is not as much of it.
The mature adult, Stage 5 has the classic coarse and curly pubic hair that extends onto the inner thighs.
The final amount, color, and distribution of pubic hair surrounding the vagina is quite variable. About 90% of women aged 18 and older have a “horizontal” pattern diagrammed below (far left). Other hair patterns are also depicted.