Breast cancer myths, debunked
So many rumors and controversies surrounding breast cancer what really makes what really keeps-it can be hard to know who to believe.
Among the diseases rife with myths and half-truths, breast cancer is one of the most misunderstood. Whether it is the best age to have a mammogram or symptoms to consider, what you think of as fact can actually be completely false. For example, a friend swears that wearing a bra can cause breast cancer, but the reality is that there is no scientific evidence for this claim.
On the other hand, if you think you are at risk because there is no history of breast cancer in your family, you may be wrong. And while a bulge can certainly signify the presence of cancer, 10% of all women diagnosed with the disease did not have a lump, pain, or other indicators of cancer. The truth is that scientists do not yet know what causes breast cancer only that certain factors, such as obesity or excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk. Read on to learn how to separate fact from fiction so you can be safe.
Myth: Breast cancer is preventable.
Fact: Although you can certainly address certain risk factors like obesity and inactivity, there’s not enough information about what causes breast cancer for women to prevent it completely.
“There is a difference between things that are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, such as obesity after menopause and alcohol, and what actually causes cancer,” says Love. “It is likely that these are not the cause but either promote it or are in some way linked with it.” A drug called Tamoxifen may reduce the risk of breast cancer in certain high-risk women—although more research is needed for treatments that apply to the general population—and double mastectomies can reduce the risk of breast cancer by more than 90% in women with a very high risk.
Myth: Breast cancer is largely genetic.
Fact: Just 5 to 10% of cases are due to faulty breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Even in women who have a family history, many cases are due not to specific gene mutations, according to the American Cancer Society, but, rather, to a combination of shared lifestyle factors and genetic susceptibilities. The truth is that scientists still have no idea what causes breast cancer—but new research is shedding light on what makes cancer return.
Myth: Wearing a bra increases your cancer risk.
Fact: There is no good scientific or clinical basis to support the claim that plain or underwire bras cause breast cancer.
This rumor appears to have started after a book called Dressed to Kill suggested that bras obstruct toxin-laden lymph fluid from flowing out of the breast. However, this was speculation based on a survey and no scientific evidence. Since then, major medical institutions, such as the National Cancer Institute and the ACS, have refuted the claim. If non-bra wearers do get breast cancer less often, it’s probably because they tend to be thinner; obesity is a known risk factor.
Myth: Small chested women have a lower risk.
Fact: Your bra size does not play a role in whether or not you get breast cancer.
All breast cancers develop in the cells lining the ducts or lobules-the parts and bring milk to the nipple, and all women have the same number, regardless of breast size. What makes larger or smaller breasts usually the amount of fat and stroma (fibrous tissue), which research shows have little impact on the likelihood of cancer. In short, the Task Force Preventive Services recommends the United States have a mammogram and a clinical breast exam every 1-2 years after age 50. Other experts and organizations, including ACS recommends starting mammograms in their early 40s. Talk to your doctor to determine the best plan is for you.
Myth: Deodorant and antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
Fact: Skipping these toiletries won’t keep your breasts cancer free.
One email rumor claimed that antiperspirant prevents you from sweating out toxins, which can then accumulate in the lymph nodes and cause breast cancer. But in 2002, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle conducted a study to address this rumor—and found no link between deodorant or antiperspirant and breast cancer.
A second rumor speculated that certain chemicals in antiperspirants, such as aluminum and parabens, may cause breast cancer because there is a lower prevalence of the disease in developing countries where women don’t use these products. However, toxins are not usually released through sweat, and in Europe, where antiperspirants are not widely used, the rate of breast cancer is higher than it is in the United States. Finally, although a 2004 study found parabens in the tissue of breast cancer tumors, so far no studies have shown that these or any other chemicals in deodorants and antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
Myth: Breast cancer always appears as a lump.
Fact: Approximately 10% of those diagnosed with breast cancer have no lumps, pain, or other indications of a problem in their breasts.
And among lumps that are detected, 80 to 85% are benign. They’re often cysts or noncancerous tumors called fibroadenomas. That said, any lump or breast symptom (especially from the list below) that does not go away should be checked by a doctor.
- 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
Myth: Young women don’t get breast cancer.
Fact: While it’s true the disease is more common in postmenopausal women, breast cancer can affect people of any age.
In fact, women under age 50 account for 25% of all cases of breast cancer, and they tend to have higher mortality rates. This can be partly explained by the fact that younger women tend to have denser breasts, which makes it harder to detect lumps in mammograms. Because of this, it is a good idea to perform self breast monthly checkups from age 20, have a clinical examination by a doctor every three years, and talk to your doctor about whether you should start mammograms at 40 years.
If you have a family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about also getting a breast MRI: Younger women with breast cancer are more likely to have a mutation in the BRCA genes 1 to 2 genes older women, and one study found that RM got 77% of cancers in these women compared with 36% for mammography. If your doctor says you have dense breasts, digital mammography requests that 15% more cancers were found to conventional mammograms in women under 50 and 11% in women with dense breasts in a 2005 study.
Myth: I had a normal mammogram, so I don’t need to worry about breast cancer.
Fact: Mammograms offer our best means of early detection; current ACS guidelines still recommend them annually for women 40 and older‚ but they’re not perfect.
Research shows they can miss up to 20% of breast cancers in women who don’t have any symptoms. Mammography reduces a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer by only 16%, according to the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. And just because one exam comes back normal doesn’t mean breast cancer won’t develop later—which is why some current guidelines call for mammograms annually. To be safe, do self breast exams, paying particular attention to any changes in how your breasts look or feel. Women under 40 should have a clinical exam done every 3 years. Women 40 and older should get one yearly. Ask your doctor about the latest screening technology: Digital mammograms detected 15% more cancers in women under age 50 and 11% more in women with dense breasts, according to one study, and digital MRIs picked up 77% of cancers in women with a genetic mutation, compared with 36% detected by mammography. An MRI should be used in conjunction with, not instead of, a mammogram, according to the ACS.
Myth: Mammograms prevent or reduce your risk.
Fact: Regular mammograms will not prevent or reduce your risk of breast cancer.
They just detect breast cancer that already exists—reducing deaths among breast cancer patients by about 16%. However, most breast cancers have been present for 6 to 8 years by the time they appear on mammograms, and screening misses up to 20% of all tumors. That’s why it’s important that all women pay close attention to their own bodies to spot potential changes as early as possible. Getting a high-quality mammogram and having a clinical breast exam on a regular basis are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages.
Myth: Birth control pills cause breast cancer.
Fact: Doctors say the evidence isn’t strong enough for them to recommend that women stop taking birth control pills to avoid breast cancer.
Some studies from the mid ’90s showed that birth control users had a slightly increased risk, but researchers caution that pill formulations have changed since then (most contain much lower doses of the hormones linked to breast cancer risk). This research also found that the risk returned to normal 10 years after women stopped taking the pills. Some research suggests that risk may depend on ethnicity or age (African-Americans and those who take pills after age 45 have a slightly increased risk), while other studies found no association between pills and cancer whatsoever. “This suggests that birth control‚Äìrelated breast cancer risk may not be the same for all women,” says Susan Love, MD, a breast cancer surgeon.
Myth: Mammograms cause breast cancer.
Fact: The risk of harm from radiation is minuscule compared to the huge benefits of early detection.
The ACS recommends that women 40 and older have a mammogram every one to two years. (Other organizations recommend waiting until age 50 and having them every 1 to 2 years.) For a full breakdown, Radiation doses are regulated by the FDA and are fairly low—equivalent to the amount the average person receives from naturally occurring sources over 3 months. Also, women today receive 50 times less radiation from mammograms than they did 20 years ago, with the risk of long-term health effects being almost zero, according to the FDA. As each case of breast cancer is different, every woman should talk with her doctor about her personal risk factors for breast cancer. Those at high risk may need to start getting mammograms before age 40 or couple them with more sensitive screening methods, like MRI.
Myth: Drinking from a plastic water bottle left in a hot car can cause cancer.
Fact: This rumor falsely claims that dioxins—a group of toxic chemicals associated with an array of health problems, including breast cancer—leach from the heated plastic into the water.
Plastics do not contain dioxins, and the sun’s rays are not strong enough to create them, says Michael Trush, PhD, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Urban Environmental Health. Most single-use beverage bottles sold in the United States are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a substance tested extensively for safety. There is some evidence that heat can cause bisphenol A (BPA), a compound that’s been shown to have estrogenic effects in animal studies, to leach from plastic bottles into the water. (The “estrogenic effects” are thought to impact cancer risk.) However, most single-use water bottles sold in the United States are made from BPA-free plastic. And there’s no proven link to breast cancer in women anyway. To be safe, drink from a reusable plastic bottle labeled “BPA free,” or choose water bottles with a “1,” “2,” “4,” or “5” in the recycling symbol on the bottom.