We often hear only women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk. The reality is that roughly 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors for the disease. But the family-history risks are these: If a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) has had or has breast cancer, your risk of developing the disease approximately doubles. We look at 10 myths and the realities of breast cancer:
Myth: Wearing an underwire bra increases your risk of getting breast cancer.
Reality: Claims that underwire bras compress the lymphatic system of the breast, causing toxins to accumulate and cause breast cancer, have been widely debunked as unscientific. 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.
Myth: Most breast lumps are cancerous.
Reality: Roughly 80% of lumps in women’s breasts are caused by benign (noncancerous) changes, cysts, or other conditions. Doctors encourage women to report any changes at all, however, because catching breast cancer early is so beneficial. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy to determine whether a lump is cancerous.
Myth: Exposing a tumor to air during surgery causes cancer to spread.
Reality: Surgery doesn’t cause breast cancer and it doesn’t cause breast cancer to spread, as far as scientists can tell from the research so far.
Myth: Your doctor may find out during surgery that your cancer is more widespread than previously thought, however. And some animal studies have shown that removing the primary tumor sometimes enables metastatic cancers to grow, but only temporarily.
Reality: This has not been demonstrated in humans.
Myth: Breast implants can raise your cancer risk.
Reality: 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.
Reality: Your risk increases as you get older. A woman’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is about 1 in 233 when she’s in her 30s and rises to 1 in 8 by the time she’s reached 85.
Myth: Wearing antiperspirant increases your risk of getting breast cancer.
Reality: The American Cancer Society pooh-poohs this rumor, but admits that more research is needed. One small study did stumble on traces of parabens in a tiny sample of breast cancer tumors.
Myth: Antiperspirants cause breast cancer
Reality: Parabens, used as preservatives in some antiperspirants, have weak estrogen-like properties, but the study in question made no cause-and-effect connection between parabens and breast cancer, nor did it conclusively identify the source of the parabens found in tumors.
Myth: Small-breasted women have less chance of getting breast cancer.
Reality: There’s no connection between the size of your breasts and your risk of getting breast cancer. Very large breasts may be harder to examine than small breasts, with clinical breast exams—and even mammograms and MRIs—more difficult to conduct. But all women, regardless of breast size, should commit to routine screenings and checkups.
Myth: Breast cancer always comes in the form of a lump.
Reality: A lump may indicate breast cancer (or one of many benign breast conditions), but women should also be on the alert for other kinds of changes that may be signs of cancer. These include swelling; skin irritation or dimpling; breast or nipple pain; nipple retraction (turning inward); redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin; or a discharge other than breast milk.
Myth: Breast cancer can also spread to underarm lymph nodes and cause swelling there before a tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.
Reality: On the other hand, a mammogram may pick up breast cancer that has no outward symptoms at all.
Myth: You can’t get breast cancer after a mastectomy.
Reality: Some women do get breast cancer after a mastectomy, sometimes at the site of the scar. Or the original cancer may have spread. For women at high risk of breast cancer who have their breasts removed as a prophylactic or preventive measure, there’s still a chance, though a small one, that they can get breast cancer. After prophylactic mastectomy a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer is reduced by an average of 90%.
Myth: Your father’s family history of breast cancer doesn’t affect your risk as much as your mother’s.
Reality: Your father’s family history of breast cancer is just as important as your mother’s in understanding your risk. But to find out about the risk stemming from your father’s side of the family, you need to look primarily at the women; while men do get breast cancer, women are more vulnerable to it. Associated cancers in men (such as early-onset prostate or colon cancer) on either side are also important to factor in when doing a full family-tree risk assessment.
Myth: Caffeine causes breast cancer.
Reality: No causal connection has been found between drinking caffeine and getting breast cancer; in fact, some research suggests that caffeine may actually lower your risk. So far it’s inconclusive whether breast soreness may be linked to caffeine.
Myth: If you’re at risk for breast cancer, there’s little you can do but watch for the signs.
Reality: There’s a lot that women can do to lower their risk, including losing weight if they’re obese, getting regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption, being rigorous about examining their own breasts, and having regular clinical exams and mammograms. Quitting smoking wouldn’t hurt either.
Myth: Women with lumpy breasts (also known as fibrocystic breast changes) have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Reality: In the past, women with lumpy, dense, or fibrocystic breasts were believed to be at higher risk of getting breast cancer, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection after all. However, when you have lumpy breasts, it it can be trickier to differentiate normal tissue from cancerous tissue, so you may experience false alarms. Women with fibrocystic breasts often follow up their mammograms with an ultrasound.
For more information on how best to support a loved one with cancer, read the full support guide. To find out more about cancer and support, contact CANSA. For more information on dread disease cover, visit www.sanlam.co.za.