Best for Your Breasts

By Elizabeth Marglin

Gather your breasts, whatever their form—large, small, pointy, curvaceous, pert, or saggy—and cup them close to your heart. Cherish this part of your body, for as Psalm 139 says, “I will praise thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But lately, the emphasis seems heavy on the fear, with the spotlight falling mainly on breast cancer, and light on the wonder.

“I’m amazed we have Breast Cancer Month,” says Tracy Gaudet, MD, director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine and author of Consciously
Female: How to Listen to Your Body and Your Soul for a Lifetime of Healthier Living (Bantam, 2004). “Why don’t we have Breast Health Month? We always are focusing on the disease state rather than on optimum health.” Why not reverse that thinking? If we reconnect ourselves with our breasts and proactively promote their health, we can better sense when we’re in balance and when something’s awry.

“Breast cancer is a concern for everyone,” Gaudet adds, “but we need to see the bigger picture.” In that picture, our breasts are a vital and sensual part of our body that deserve to be lavished with care. Nourishing them through exercise, herbs, and massage are gentle, noninvasive ways to bolster breast health and channel our nurturing energies back toward ourselves.

Get a move on

Adding exercise to your daily routine makes a huge difference for breast health. A 2003 study published in JAMA found that postmenopausal women who engaged in the equivalent of 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours of brisk walking each week decreased their risk of breast cancer by 18 percent. Women who exercised during their 30s benefited from a similar protective effect later in life.

The American Cancer Society suggests at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week, but that doesn’t mean you have to become a gym rat. “Exercise doesn’t have to be spandex or an hour at a time,” says Susun Weed, author of Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way (Ash Tree Publishing, 1996). You can dance around a room, walk around the block, or weed your garden. Tune into the types of movement that feel right for your body.

Much ado about bras

The same principle holds for bras: Go with what feels right for you. That may mean bidding adieu to bras altogether, an act experts such as Weed recommend, since a few studies have linked bra wearing with breast cancer. In particular, two anthropologists with the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease, Sydney Singer and Soma Grismaijer, studied the bra-wearing habits of 4,600 women and found that the longer a woman wore her bra, the higher her risk was for breast cancer.

While many doctors scoff at their results, it’s plausible that tight bras constrict the flow of lymph around the breast, chest wall, and surrounding tissue. If lymph can’t circulate, the build-up of toxins could conceivably lead to cancer. Underwire bras are especially guilty of cutting off circulation, and many experts in breast health advise against them.

In the end, the bra brouhaha basically comes down to an awareness of what’s most comfortable and respectful to your anatomy. Weed prefers going braless, saying, “I don’t put any part of my body in bondage.” If not wearing a bra is out of the question, treat your breasts kindly by getting them a bra that fits, which by definition won’t leave red marks and indentations when you first take it off. You also can experiment with wearing camisoles instead. Try not to wear a bra for more than 12 hours a day, and for goodness sake, don’t wear one to bed. In fact, give your breasts some downtime, so to speak, by going bra-free for a few hours every day. If this causes soreness at first, be patient. With time, the connective tissue in the breast will become stronger, and the pain will go away.

Breaking the pain cycle

Other types of breast pain are more cyclical in nature and often get lumped under the term “fibrocystic breast disease.” This condition includes a host of benign symptoms such as bumpy breast tissue, swelling, dull pain, and tenderness, especially before menstruation. However, since more than 60 percent of women experience these symptoms, most doctors consider fibrocystic breasts a normal variation and not a disease at all. “Fibrocystic disease is a meaningless umbrella term—a wastebasket into which doctors throw every breast problem that isn’t cancerous,” declares Susan Love, MD, director of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book (Da Capo Press, 2005).

For many women, however, the symptoms are real enough and usually manifest cyclically with hormonal ebbs and flows. Eliminating caffeine from your diet can help reduce monthly fluctuations in breast size and tenderness, says Christiane Northrup in her book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam, 1998). She also suggests taking 2,000 mg of evening primrose oil in the morning and evening to alleviate breast tenderness by stemming inflammation. Vitamins E and A also will reduce the inflammation that causes cyclical breast pain. Seaweeds such as wakame and kombu provide not only a mother lode of antioxidants but iodine as well, which may protect against breast cancer, Northrup says.

An infusion of health

Herbal supplements in the form of infusions can make significant contributions to overall breast health. Some herbs nourish the body by providing it with cancer-fighting vitamins, minerals, and carotenes; others, called tonifiers, work over time to boost the healthy functioning of organs and bodily systems.

Weed, an herbalist as well as an author and teacher, takes daily herbal infusions as beauty treatments, longevity tonics, and safeguards against breast cancer. More potent than herbal teas because they steep longer and, therefore, contain more of an herb’s constituents, infusions take at least four hours to prepare. Weed’s top six infusions are comfrey leaf (Symphytum uplandica), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), violet (Viola odorata), burdock root (Arctium lappa), red clover (Trifolium pratense), and oatstraw (Avena sativa).

Freestyling the breast exam

The hot debate about the efficacy of the breast self-exam (BSE) makes the bra controversy look like a tempest in a teapot. A much-cited 2001 study by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health concluded that the BSE had no effect on detecting cancer earlier or on the mortality of women with breast cancer. Indeed, the exam itself, with its focus on finding cancer, is said to incite fear more often than it actually detects disease.

But that’s no reason to avoid getting intimately acquainted with the form and texture of your breasts. Several doctors suggest a more relaxed model of the BSE that allows women to familiarize themselves with their breasts but in a less disease-focused manner.

“The key thing is not to put on a doctor’s hat and do a clinical exam once a month,” Gaudet says. “The main thing is to get to know that part of your body. You want to know what your breasts normally feel and look like, so if suddenly something is different, you’ll notice.”

Exploring your breasts through touch and loving observation can occur through regular breast self-massage using infused herbal oils. Weed recommends doing this in a place where you can lean back, such as a bed or warm bath. The advantage of a bath is that the washing motion offers a natural way to monitor your breasts, and the water helps your fingers glide easily over your skin. As you wash your breasts, think about sending healing energy to them through your hands. Learn to look for changes in coloration or texture, and notice how your breasts feel at different times during your cycle.

Shifting the paradigm

Just as the conventional BSE focuses more on detecting cancer than on helping women understand their anatomy, the medical establishment frames too many women’s health issues in a fear-based perspective rather than using an integrated, holistic approach to wellness. Massage and breast care can aid us in overcoming our judgments of what we think our breasts should look like. Bless them for what they are—a unique part of our woman’s wisdom and perfect in their own way. In claiming this part of our bodies for ourselves, we can help reformulate how we think about our breasts. Rather than being afraid of them—as if they’re landmines waiting to explode—we can move past fear toward a deeper appreciation of their complexity. A strong feeling of empowerment comes when we authentically experience our bodies and breasts and do the best we can for them—and it’s a power that’s up to each of us to claim.