Myth: Annual mammograms expose you to so much radiation that they increase your risk of cancer.
Reality: While it’s true that radiation is used in mammography, the amount is so small that any associated risks are tiny when compared to the huge preventive benefits
reaped from the test. Mammograms can detect lumps well before they can be felt or otherwise noticed, and the earlier that lumps are caught, the better one’s chances for survival. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older receive a screening mammogram every one to two years.
Myth: Needle biopsies can disturb cancer cells and cause them to spread to other parts of the body.
Reality: There’s no conclusive evidence for this claim. Despite some previous concerns, a 2004 study found no increased spread of cancer among patients undergoing needle biopsies compared to those who did not have the procedure.
Myth: After heart disease, breast cancer is the nation’s leading killer of women.
Reality: Breast cancer kills roughly 40,000 women a year in the United States but stroke (96,000 deaths), lung cancer (71,000), and chronic lower respiratory disease (67,000) are each responsible for more deaths annually.
Myth: If your mammography report is negative, there is nothing else to worry about.
Reality: Despite their importance for breast cancer screening and diagnosis, mammograms fail to detect around 10% to 20% of breast cancers. This is why clinical breast exams and, to some extent, breast self-exams are crucial pieces of the screening process.
Myth: Hair straighteners cause breast cancer in African-American women.
Reality: A large 2007 study funded by the National Cancer Institute found no increase in breast cancer risk due to the use of hair straighteners or relaxers. Study participants included African-American women who had used straighteners seven or more times a year for 20 years or longer.
Myth: Removing the entire breast gives you a better chance of surviving cancer than having a lumpectomy with radiation therapy.
Reality: Survival rates are about the same for women who have mastectomies and for women who choose the breast-conserving option of removing only part of the breast and following the surgery with radiation treatments. However, there are some cases—such as with extensive DCIS disease, the presence of BRCA gene mutations, or particularly large tumors—when lumpectomy and radiation may not be an appropriate treatment option.
Myth: Overweight women have the same breast cancer risk as other women.
Reality: Being overweight or obese does increase your breast cancer risk—especially if you’re past menopause and/or you gained the weight later in life.
Myth: Fertility treatments increase the risk of getting breast cancer.
Reality: Given estrogen’s connection to breast cancer, fertility treatments have come under suspicion. But several studies have found that prospective moms are likely to have no higher risk of breast cancer. As yet, no large, long-term, randomized studies have eliminated this concern entirely; it merits more research to find a definite answer.
Myth: Living near power lines can cause breast cancer.
Reality: A 2003 study aimed at explaining what appeared to be a high incidence of breast cancer in certain counties on Long Island, N.Y., found no link between the disease and electromagnetic fields emitted by power lines. An earlier study conducted in the Seattle area yielded a similar conclusion. Research into potential environmental risk factors is ongoing.
Myth: Having an abortion raises your risk of getting breast cancer.
Reality: 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.
Myth: Breast cancer is preventable.
Reality: Alas, no. Although it is possible to identify risk factors (such as family history and inherited gene mutations) and make lifestyle changes that can lower your risk (reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption, losing weight, getting regular exercise and screenings, and quitting smoking), roughly 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors, meaning that the disease occurs largely by chance and according to as-yet-unexplained factors.
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