The Truth About Your Breasts

Illustrated by Lealand Eve

Breast development is uncomfortable for every teen, but it can be especially traumatic for dancers. While you can hide behind a loose T-shirt or sweater at school, at dance your leotard or fitted costume puts your ever-changing body on display. Suddenly you have these alien things on your chest: They’re lopsided, they’re big, they even hurt sometimes. How are you supposed to know what’s normal? We’ve asked experts the breast-health questions you may have been too afraid or embarrassed to ask. Read on for the answers.

Is it normal if my breasts are different sizes?

Most full-grown women have breasts that are slightly different in size, according to Dr. Kandace P. McGuire, who practices in the Surgical Oncology Division at Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. However, size differences tend to be most dramatic while you’re still growing, because one breast may develop faster than the other. “They usually even out over time,” McGuire says. But if one of your breasts has grown very large, very rapidly (in a month or less), she says that it may be a sign of a problem and you should talk to your doctor.

Why do my breasts get sore and/or bigger a few days before my period?

Menstrual-cycle–related breast tenderness is normal, especially for teenagers. “Right before your period, your ovaries send out a bunch of hormones,” McGuire says. “Those hormones cause your breasts to grow a little bit. All that activity can make a girl pretty sore!” Soreness and swelling will usually go away within the first few days of your period, but some women experience these symptoms throughout menstruation. McGuire says that either case is considered normal.

How will I know when my breasts are fully grown?

During the first stages of breast development, your areola (the dark-colored area around the nipple) is usually raised above the surrounding skin, McGuire says. But, “when breasts are fully developed, the skin of the areola is level with the rest of the breast skin,” she says. Girls typically reach this stage between the ages of 16 and 18, “but even once your breasts are fully developed, they can still grow,” McGuire says. This often happens during periods of weight gain.

Illustrated by Lealand Eve

All my friends have developed. Why haven’t I?

“Most girls’ breasts fully develop in the first two to three years after starting their periods,” McGuire says. Thanks to genetics, you will likely start menstruating and developing breasts around the same age your female family members did. But diet and body weight can also impact your growth. “Young women who have very low-fat diets or low body-fat levels tend to develop later,” McGuire says. She adds that many dancers may hit puberty later than their non-dance peers because of their active lifestyles, but if you’ve reached age 16 and haven’t gotten your period or started developing, you should mention it to your doctor so she can rule out problematic causes.

Do I need to worry about breast cancer?

“Anyone with breast tissue, even teenagers and males, can get breast cancer—but this is exceedingly rare,” says Dr. Therese Bevers, a professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Department of Clinical Cancer Prevention in Houston. Although breast cancer is uncommon in teenagers, McGuire urges young dancers to learn how to do self breast exams. “Teenagers and other young women are prone to cysts or even fibroadenomas, which are noncancerous tumors that can be annoying and painful,” she says. “They usually go away with time, but will need to be discussed with your doctor.”

Will my breasts change if I take birth control pills?

Maybe. Birth control pills can cause weight gain and make your breasts grow larger. They can make the lumps and bumps in your breast (like cysts and fibroadenomas) grow as well. “They will not increase your risk for breast cancer and actually lower your risk for ovarian cancer,” McGuire says.

Is it true that having large breasts makes it more likely that I’ll get breast cancer?

“We have not linked size of breasts to risk of breast cancer,” Bevers says. According to McGuire, a woman’s breast is made up of two different parts: the functional glands and ducts that make milk when you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, and the nonfunctional fat and connective tissue. “Everyone pretty much has the same amount of functional breast tissue,” she says—and cancer only attacks functional tissue. “Larger breasts usually have more nonfunctional tissue, but having more fat in the breast does not increase your risk for breast cancer.”

Is it normal for my chest to sweat this much?

“Sweating underneath and between your breasts is completely normal, especially during puberty,” McGuire says. Keep these areas clean and dry by changing and washing your bras often and controlling wetness with baby powder. Worried about developing giant sweat stains in class? Dark-colored leotards will help conceal sweat marks. If your studio allows it, a pattern or print will also help disguise sweat. While cotton is one of the most breathable fabrics, it can show embarrassing stains once you’ve started sweating, so look for a cotton-synthetic blend.

Support Systems

Is your favorite camisole leotard not giving your new chest the support it needs? If you’re well endowed, opt for leotards with wider straps, and don’t be afraid to layer your leo over a sports bra when you’re in class—you’re better off showing a few extra straps than worrying about your breasts bouncing every time you leap!
Making sure you have the support you need onstage is a more delicate matter. Let your teacher know if you’re concerned about a particular costume, and work together to come up with a solution. In most cases, you should be able to find a bra with a strap configuration that can be concealed by your costume. Try a convertible style that comes with nude or clear straps.

Former ballet dancer Kathleen McGuire is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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