Did You Know Your Breasts Have a “Tail”?

Atlanta plastic surgeon says a more thorough understanding of anatomy can help women better monitor their breast health

There is more to breasts than meets the eye, says Atlanta plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Feldman. In fact, just as much breast tissue can be found in the underarm area, what is called the “axillary tail,” as in the visible breast mound. To raise awareness for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) in October, Dr. Feldman insists that every woman monitor this important part of the breast.

“Although it rarely enters the cosmetic surgery conversation, the axillary tail plays a key role in the early diagnosis of breast cancer,” says Dr. Feldman, who performs cosmetic and reconstructive breast surgery along with his colleagues at Advanced Aesthetics, PC.

Where is the tail of the breast? In females, each breast is comprised of a network of glands, called “lobules,” and milk ducts, which are supported by fat and connective tissue. This glandular tissue extends from the nipple, upward toward the collarbone and laterally into the armpit, or axilla, where it ends in the axillary tail.

What is its relationship to breast cancer?
 An estimated 45% of cancerous breast tumors are found around the axillary tail of the breast, as opposed to 25% underneath the nipple.

A key group of lymph nodes also appear in this area. These axillary nodes, which start under the armpit, overlap the axillary tail and extend to the collarbone. The nodes are important structures for the immune system, serving as filters to help the body eliminate harmful microbes and other substances. Because of their proximity to the breast, the presence of cancer cells in the axillary nodes often indicate that breast cancer has begun to spread.

Check the axillary tail during all physical breast exams. Because the axillary tail has a higher incidence of cancer than other parts of the breast, Dr. Feldman urges women to pay close attention to any changes in the texture or appearance of the breast tissue under the arm.

Even healthy breasts can be irregular in texture, making it difficult to distinguish potential abnormalities. While not a substitute for clinical screening, establishing a habit of regular self-exams can help women detect changes in the usual texture, thickness, or appearance of her breast tissue.

For cosmetic breast surgery patients, Dr. Feldman stresses that learning what feels normal is especially important, as the breast tissue will feel different than it may have prior to surgery.

“After a breast lift or reduction, it is normal to feel thicker, tougher tissue where the incisions have healed,” says Dr. Feldman. “By getting to know what breasts feel like after surgery, a woman can more readily notice changes that merit further evaluation.”

According to Breastcancer.org, approximately 20% of breast cancers are first discovered during physical exams, either by a patient or her physician during a clinical breast exam.

The surgeons from Advanced Aesthetics recommend that any patient concerned about changes in her breasts consult a physician. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better chance a woman has of making a complete recovery.