8 misconceptions about breast cancer
Published Oct 23, 2021 • By Courtney Johnson
During Pinktober or Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to shine a light on this disease that impacts 1 in 8 women in the United States.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about breast cancer? What is true and what is false about this disease?
Read on to learn more!
Breast cancer only affects women
False. Though it is rarer, breast cancer still can occur in men. Many people belive that men cannot develop breast cancer because they do not have breasts - however, they do have breast tissue. Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of breast cancer cases in the US and the American Cancer Society estimates that 2,650 men will be diagnosed in 2021. While breast cancer remains relatively rare in men, it is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage because doctors and patients do not typically associate lumps and other changes in the breast tissue to breast cancer.
Breast cancer only affects middle-aged and older women
False. While it is true that being female and advanced in age are among the top risk factors for developing breast cancer, the American Cancer Society found that in 2017, about 4% of invasive breast cancers were diagnosed in women under age 40 (compared to 23% in women in their 50s and 27% in women aged 60-69). Though 4% may seem low, it isn’t 0%; it means that 1 in 25 cases of breast cancer occurred in women under 40.
If you don't have a family history of breast cancer, you are "safe" from breast cancer
False. Many people think that breast cancer is a hereditary illness. However, statistically only about 10% of people diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease, meaning that other factors such as lifestyle and environment must contribute to their risk, not genetics.
Unfortunately, doctors still aren’t sure of why one person may develop breast cancer over another. As mentioned above, the most significant risk factors for breast cancer are being female and advancing in age. As we age, our healthy breast cells can develop mutations on their own and become cancer cells.
If you do have a strong family history of breast cancer, such as one or more first or second-degree relatives affected by the disease, make sure to inform your doctor.
Wearing a bra can cause breast cancer
False. The media and various internet sources have occasionally fueled the notion that wearing a bra increases the risk of developing breast cancer.
One of the theories proposed is that wearing a bra, especially a style with an underwire, could hinder the flow of lymph fluid out of the breast, causing the buildup of toxins in the breast tissue.
However, there is no evidence to back up this claim. A study in 2014 of almost 1,500 women with breast cancer found that there was no link between wearing a bra and the cancer.
Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer
False. Fortunately, this is a myth. Not all lumps or abnormalities in the breast are cancer - in fact, studies estimate that up to 60-80% of all breast lumps are benign.
If you do discover a new, persistent lump in your breast or notice any changes in your breast tissue, it is important to consult a doctor for a clinical breast exam. He or she may order further breast imaging scans to determine whether the lump is a cause for worry.
Using underarm deodorants or antiperspirants cause breast cancer
False. Over the years, there have been lasting rumors that underarm deodorants or antiperspirants, particularly those containing aluminum or other chemical substances, are absorbed by the lymph nodes and travel to the breast cells, increasing one’s risk for cancer. It was thought that shaving the underarms would make this worse, by creating micro-cuts that would allow the chemicals to enter the bloodstream more easily. Another purported theory is that antiperspirants, which stop underarm sweating, prevent the release of toxins from the lymph nodes, similarly increasing risk of cancer.
Despite these rumors, there is no conclusive evidence linking the use of deodorants or antiperspirants to the subsequent development of breast cancer. However, a few studies have observed that women who use underarm products containing aluminum are more likely to have higher concentrations of aluminum in their breast tissue.
All breast cancers are treated basically the same way
False. Treatment strategies for breast cancer vary greatly based on the cancer’s features and the patient’s needs. There are a number of variables to consider when choosing treatments, including:
- The size, stage and grade of the cancer, in addition to the location (lobules vs. ducts)
- If the cancer is known or thought to be linked to a hereditary genetic mutation, like BRCA1 or BRCA2
- If the cancer tests positive for progesterone or estrogen receptors (meaning its growth is stimulated by hormones)
- If the cancer tests positive for additional copies of the HER2 gene
- The results of tests that can predict the chance of recurrence, like MammaPrint® or OncotypeDX®
- The patient’s preferences about the timing of treatment sessions or avoiding certain side effects
When your treatment ends, you’re finished with breast cancer
Many people experiencing breast cancer feel pressure from family, friends, or even society to be ready to “move on” or “go back to normal” after their treatment ends. However, certain treatment options such as targeted therapies or hormonal therapies may be prescribed for up to 10 years post-chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Plus, if a woman decides to undergo a breast reconstruction, she may have several surgeries over a several-month-long period. And for patients with stage IV or metastatic breast cancer, treatment will continue for the rest of their lives.
Even when the principal treatment is finished, some people can keep experiencing side effects. Depending on the treatment, some of these side effects may be physical: fatigue, neuropathy (tingling or numbness in the extremities), skin changes, tightness and pain, menopausal symptoms, and others. Other side effects may be mental or emotional in nature: depression, anxiety or fear of recurrence, relationship issues, etc.
For many people, these effects of breast cancer may endure for years – or even a lifetime in the caste of metastatic breast cancer – but unfortunately, their loved ones just don’t understand.
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- Breast Cancer Myths vs. Facts, BreastCancer.org
- Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer, NIH National Cancer Institute
- Myths, National Breast Cancer Foundation
- Key Statistics for Breast Cancer in Men, American Cancer Society
- Medical Myths: 15 breast cancer misconceptions, Medical News Today
- Perry MC. Breast Lump. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 170. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279/