23 myths about breast cancer

What you don’t know CAN hurt you. Misinformation can keep you from recognizing and minimizing your own risk of breast cancer or getting the very best possible care. Arm yourself with the facts.

  1. Breast cancer only affects older women.
    While it’s true that the risk of breast cancer increases as we grow older, breast cancer can occur at any age. From birth to age 39, one woman in 231 will get breast cancer (<0.5% risk); from age 40–59, the risk is one in 25 (4% risk); from age 60–79, the risk is one in 15 (nearly 7%). Assuming you live to age 90, the risk of getting breast cancer over the course of an entire lifetime is one in 7, with an overall lifetime risk of 14.3%.
  2. If I have a risk factor for breast cancer, I’m likely to get the disease.
    No. Getting breast cancer is not a certainty, even if you have one of the stronger risk factors, like a breast cancer gene abnormality. Of women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited genetic abnormality, 40–80% will develop breast cancer over their lifetime; 20–60% won’t. All other risk factors are associated with a much lower probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
  3. If breast cancer doesn’t run in my family, I won’t get it.
    No. Every woman has some risk of breast cancer. About 80% of women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. Increasing age – just the wear and tear of living – is the biggest single risk factor for breast cancer. For those women who do have a family history of breast cancer, your risk may be elevated a little, a lot, or not at all. If you are concerned, discuss your family history with your physician or a genetic counselor. You may be worrying needlessly.
  4. Only my mother’s family history of breast cancer can affect my risk.
    No. A history of breast cancer in your mother’s OR your father’s family will influence your risk equally. That’s because half of your genes come from your mother, half from your father. But a man with a breast cancer gene abnormality is less likely to develop breast cancer than a woman with a similar gene. So, if you want to learn more about your father’s family history, you have to look mainly at the women on your father’s side, not just the men.
  5. Using antiperspirants causes breast cancer.
    No. There is no evidence that the active ingredient in antiperspirants, or reducing perspiration from the underarm area, influences breast cancer risk. The supposed link between breast cancer and antiperspirants is based on misinformation about anatomy and a misunderstanding of breast cancer.
  6. Birth control pills cause breast cancer.
    Modern day birth control pills contain a low dose of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Many research studies show no association between birth control pills and an increased risk of breast cancer. However, one study that combined the results of many different studies did show an association between birth control pills and a very small increase in risk. The study also showed that this slight increase in risk decreased over time. So after 10 years, birth control pills were not associated with an increase in risk. Birth control pills also have benefits:
    – decreasing ovarian and endometrial cancer risk
    – relieving menstrual disorders, pelvic inflammatory disease, and ovarian, and cysts
    – improving bone mineral density
    As with any medicine, you have to weigh the risks and benefits and decide what is best for YOU.
  7. Eating high-fat foods causes breast cancer.
    Several large studies have not been able to demonstrate a clear connection between eating high-fat foods and a higher risk of breast cancer. Ongoing studies are attempting to clarify this issue further. We can say that avoidance of high-fat foods is a healthy choice for other reasons: to lower the “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins), increase the “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins); to make more room your diet for healthier foods, and to help you control your weight. Excess body weight, IS a risk factor for breast cancer, because the extra fat increases the production of estrogen outside the ovaries and adds to the overall level of estrogen in the body. If you are already overweight, or have a tendency to gain weight easily, avoiding high-fat foods is a good idea.
  8. A monthly breast self-exam is the best way to diagnose breast cancer.
    No. Digital mammography or high quality film-screen mammography is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible, when it is most curable. By the time a breast cancer can be felt, it is usually bigger than the average size of a cancer first found on mammography. Breast examination by you or your healthcare provider is still very important. About 25% of breast cancers are found only on breast examination (not on the mammogram), about 35% are found on mammography alone, and 40% are found by both physical exam and mammography. Keep both bases covered.
  9. I’m at high risk for breast cancer and there’s nothing I can do about it.
    No. There are several effective ways to reduce—but not eliminate—the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk. Options include lifestyle changes (minimize alcohol consumption, stop smoking, exercise regularly), medication (tamoxifen, also called Nolvadex); and in cases of very high risk, surgery may be offered (prophylactic mastectomies, and for some women, prophylactic ovary removal). Be sure that you have consulted with a physician or genetic counselor before you make assumptions about your level of risk.
  10. A breast cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence.
    No. Fully 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no signs of metastases (no cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes). Furthermore, 80% of these women live at least five years, most longer, and many live much longer. Even women with signs of cancer metastases can live a long time. Plus promising treatment breakthroughs are becoming available each day.
  11. I’ve made it five years as a survivor, so my breast cancer won’t return.
    No. Breast cancer can recur at any time, although it is more likely to happen within the first five to 10 years: 75 percent of women who will get a recurrence see it within six years, and 25 percent recur in the 10 years after that. New hormonal therapies, including tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, may be delaying recurrence, so that the cancer is more likely to return after the woman stops taking those drugs.
  12. If I have a breast lump, it’s cancer.
    No. Most breast lumps felt are not cancer. They could by cysts or a benign condition called fibrocystic changes or fibroadenoma. Lumps could also be pre-cancerous conditions that will need some treatment. But don’t let these facts lull you into complacency. All lumps (especially from the list below) should be checked thoroughly.
    – A change in how the breast or nipple feels or looks
    – A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area
    – Breast pain or nipple tenderness
    – A change in the size or shape of the breast
    – A nipple or skin that turns inward into the breast
    – Feeling warm to the touch
    -Scaly, red, or swollen skin of the breast, areola, or nipple, perhaps with ridges or pitting that resembles an orange peel
    – Nipple discharge
  13. I was called back for “extra views” after my mammogram. That must mean I have cancer.
    No. Extra views may be necessary because there’s a shadow on the image. A mass may turn out to be a benign cyst. Most of the time, no further tests are necessary once the new images are reviewed.
  14. Mammograms are painful.
    Is it comfortable? No. But it doesn’t need to be excruciatingly painful, and most women will say it’s not. Pre-menopausal women should schedule their exam for the first two weeks of their menstrual cycle, when their breasts are less tender. If you find mammograms painful, talk to the technologist performing it. The amount of compression used can vary, so the technologist can ease up on the squishing if it’s unbearable. Just keep in mind that more compression leads to a better image for the radiologist to read – so there’s a payoff to that bit of discomfort. Don’t think having a digital mammogram will get you out of it either. Digital mammography works the same as standard mammography by requiring compression
  15. An injury to the breast can cause breast cancer.
    No. Sometimes trauma to the breast may result in detection of breast cancer, but this is not due to the injury. Rather it is because the breast is being examined and followed more closely than usual.
  16. Only women get breast cancer.
    No. Men DO get breast cancer, although it is rare. If you notice a lump that does not go away in your partner’s breast tissue, make sure he sees a doctor.
  17. Small breasted women do not get breast cancer.
    No. WRONG!!! Every woman is at risk regardless of breast size, race or socioeconomic status. One in every eight women will get breast cancer and 40% of them will die from it within ten years.
  18. A mastectomy is the only treatment for breast cancer.
    No. There are several treatments for breast cancer including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Mastectomy is not the only option.
  19. Breast cancer only develops in one breast.
    No. Breast cancer has the ability to develop, or spread in both breasts.
  20. Breast-feeding causes breast cancer.
    No. Breast-feeding does not cause breast cancer. In fact, some preliminary studies reveal that breast-feeding may decrease a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. However, this data has not been confirmed. Women who breast-feed can still get breast cancer, but they are not at any increased risk compared to women who do not breast-feed.
  21. Underwire bras cause breast cancer.
    No. A book published a few years ago called Dressed to Kill suggested that underwire bras can constrict the body’s lymph node system causing toxins to accumulate and cause breast cancer. The authors of the book attributed the high rate of breast cancer in North America (compared to less industrialized countries in the world) to the fact that most North American women wear bras. This link between underwire bras and breast cancer is completely inaccurate. The authors of Dressed to Kill did not take into account any other genetic, environmental, or social factors that could contribute to breast cancer risk (such as age, family history, high fat diet, obesity, not having children, etc.). The consensus is that neither the type of bra you wear nor the tightness of your underwear or other clothing has any connection to breast cancer risk.
  22. Breast implants can raise my cancer risk.
    No. Women with breast implants are at no greater risk of getting breast cancer, according to research. Standard mammograms don’t always work as well on these women, however, so additional X-rays are sometimes needed to more fully examine breast tissue.
  23. Having an abortion raises my risk of getting breast cancer.
    No. Because abortion is believed to disrupt hormone cycles during pregnancy and breast cancer is linked to hormone levels, numerous studies have investigated a causal link—but found no conclusive evidence for one.


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