The look and feel of breasts are as varied as woman herself. Not all of us can have Kim Kardashian's perfectly soft, clouds-made-of-cheesecake tits. Some of us sag; some of us are more stretch mark than human; some of us look like a sack of potatoes if we wear the wrong shirt. But how can you tell whether the lumps in your breasts are actually a threat to your health? How lumpy is too lumpy?
There is an incredibly common condition where women's breasts can feel like a beanbag chair or a ball of twine. Doctors used to call it "fibrocystic breast disease," but since extra-fibrous breasts aren't really diseased, the currently accepted term is "fibrocystic breast changes." If you have fibrocystic breasts, they may feel like redditor historically_clio's: "They're soft to the touch and initial squeeze, but if you start pinching or prodding, it feels like straight-up gristle under the skin."
According to the Mayo Clinic, more than half of all women will experience fibrocystic breast changes in their lifetimes. Fibrocystic breast tissue is composed of cysts (fluid-filled sacs), overgrown connective tissue, and sometimes green or brown discharge from the nipples. The cysts are sometimes painful, and they tend to swell when you're ovulating. Women who develop fibrocystic breast tissue get it in both breasts. "Breast tissue tends to be fairly symmetrical," says gynecological nurse Danielle Benedek. If only one boob is lumpy, that's a different problem and you should see a doctor.
They're soft to the touch and initial squeeze, but if you start pinching or prodding, it feels like straight-up gristle under the skin.
"Breasts are made of several different types of tissue, including fat, glands, and support structures, and all of these can influence the texture of the breast," says Dr. Jani Jensen of the Mayo Clinic. The majority of your boob is fat—or, if you want to be all science about it, adipose tissue. Floating in this sea of adipose are little clusters called lobes. Lobes are made of lobules, which produce milk if you're breastfeeding. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, there are 12 to 20 lobes in each breast. The lobes are connected to the nipple by milk ducts. The whole network is supported by connective tissue. When this connective tissue goes HAM, it's called fibrosis. Fibrous connective tissue feels the same as scar tissue or gristle on a steak.
Cysts in breast tissue can be benign or cancerous. According to Dr. Jensen, malignant tumors feel "firm, fixed, and irregularly shaped, like a piece of gravel within the breast." One woman on Reddit likened the feel of a tumor in a breast to "a marble in a bowl full of grapes." Benign cysts, on the other hand, feel more like a jelly bean and can be moved around in the tissue. But Benedek urges a better safe than sorry policy when it comes to lumps. "If there is ever anything that you feel that is different than the norm or that concerns you," she says, "you should have a doctor take a look."
No one is entirely certain why fibrocystic breast changes occur. The answer is "likely due to hormonal changes in the breast tissue," according to Benedek. The fact that cysts tend to swell right before your period supports this notion, as well as the fact that post-menopausal women rarely experience fibrocystic breast changes. For women who experience painful cysts, there are some things you can do. Hormonal birth control can help regulate the worsening of symptoms that are associated with the menstrual cycle.
Fibrocystic breast tissue does not increase your chances of cancer, but it can make mammograms harder to read. That's why women who have fibrocystic breasts really need to learn their lovely lady lumps. "Get familiar with your own breasts," says Benedek. "That way, if you notice something abnormal, you can have a professional assess it."
"Know thyself," said Socrates. And he was almost certainly talking about breasts when he said it.