Structural changes in water molecules are related to physiological, anatomical and pathological properties of tissues. Near infrared (NIR) optical absorption methods are sensitive to water; however, detailed characterization of water in thick tissues is difficult to achieve because subtle spectral shifts can be obscured by multiple light scattering. In the NIR, a water absorption peak is observed around 975 nm. The precise NIR peak's shape and position are highly sensitive to water molecular disposition. We introduce a bound water index (BWI) that quantifies shifts observed in tissue water absorption spectra measured by broadband diffuse optical spectroscopy (DOS). DOS quantitatively measures light absorption and scattering spectra and therefore reveals bound water spectral shifts. BWI as a water state index was validated by comparing broadband DOS to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, diffusion-weighted MRI and conductivity in bound water tissue phantoms. Non-invasive DOS measurements of malignant and normal breast tissues performed in 18 subjects showed a significantly higher fraction of free water in malignant tissues (p < 0.0001) compared to normal tissues. BWI of breast cancer tissues inversely correlated with Nottingham-Bloom-Richardson histopathology scores. These results highlight broadband DOS sensitivity to molecular disposition of water and demonstrate the potential of BWI as a non-invasive in vivo index that correlates with tissue pathology.