Breast cancer awareness has received a massive boost over the last couple of years, so naturally women are keen to understand the causes of breast cancer and how they can protect themselves against it. It’s not surprising that a number of myths about the disease have sprung up with some having a basis of truth, some being misguided and others being plain silly (like an ill-fitting bra can cause breast cancer).
So here are some of the most popular myths surrounding breast cancer.
#Myth 1 A lump in the breast definitely means breast cancer
Fortunately, only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer. Around 80% of lumps are benign and are things like cysts or other conditions. However, it’s vitally important that anything unusual is checked out just to be sure. So don’t ignore any lumps hoping they’ll go away, and given the above statistic it’s likely to be OK anyway.
#Myth 2 Breast cancer is always signified by a lump
Breast cancer doesn’t just come as lumps. There are lots of other types of changes that can also signify something is amiss. So look out for changes to the shape and size of the breast, changes in breast skin (dimpling, skin irritation or swelling), changes to the nipple including pain, scaliness, redness, nipple inversion or a thickening of the breast skin or nipple or a discharge other than breast milk. If any of this happens, it should be checked as soon as possible by a medical practitioner.
#Myth 3 If your family has a history of breast cancer, you are likely to develop it too
This is a half truth. Whilst women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher-risk group, most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of it. Only about 10% of women diagnosed with the disease have a family history. Here is the current thinking on family connections:
- If your mother, sister or daughter has developed cancer below the age of 50 you should consider regular screening
- If you have a grandmother or aunt who was diagnosed with the disease, your risk increases slightly, but you are not in the same risk group as those with mothers, sisters or daughters with breast cancer
- If you have multiple generations who have had breast cancer on the same side of the family, or lots of first degree relatives (mothers, sisters, daughters) or several family members diagnosed under the age of 50 then the probability increases that there may be a breast cancer gene contributing to the cause of breast cancer in that side of the family.
#Myth 4 If you have the gene mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 in your DNA, then you will definitely develop breast cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute in the USA, when a family has this type of gene mutation, not every woman will carry a harmful version of it and not every cancer in these families is linked to a harmful mutation in one of these genes.
And what’s more – not every woman who has a harmful version of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will go on to develop breast or ovarian cancer. However, she is five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who has not inherited the mutation.
For people who discover they have this mutation, there are various protective measures that can be taken to reduce the risk. This includes taking hormonal therapies such as Tamoxifen or having prophylactic surgery such as a double mastectomy.
#Myth 5 Antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer
Myth. The National Cancer Institute are unaware of any conclusive evidence demonstrating a link between the use of underarm deodorants and antiperspirants and the development of breast cancer. There are claims that parabens, which are used as a preservative in some types of antiperspirants, have weak oestrogen-like properties which could potentially contribute to breast cancer development, but a link has yet to be established between parabens and breast cancer.
#Myth 6 Your risk is affected by the age you start your period or go through menopause.
This is actually considered to be true. Surprisingly there is evidence that shows that women who started their period after the age of 14 have a lower risk than those that started before 12. Going through the menopause after age 55 also increases your risk. Researchers think the risk could be linked to having a longer period of oestrogen in the body which is known to increase the risk of breast cancer developing.
#Myth 7 Women are as likely to develop breast cancer in their 30s or 40s as in their 60s or 70s
80% of breast cancer is found in women over the age of 50 and breast cancer risk increases with age. So it’s very important to keep going with breast screening into the later years. Cancer Research UK encourages women to ask their GPs to arrange mammograms after the standard invitations stop after age 70. The invitations stopping does NOT mean the risk has reduced.
#Myth 8 Breastfeeding children increases the risk of breast cancer.
In fact, the opposite is true. Studies consistently show that a woman’s risk of developing the disease decreases the longer she breastfeeds.
#Myth 9 Women with lumpy breasts (fibrocystic breasts) are more likely to develop breast cancer
Although a myth, in the past this was considered true. It was thought that women with dense, fibrocystic or lumpy breasts were at greater risk of breast cancer than those with ‘normal’ breasts.
However, there doesn’t now seem to be a connection. It may be that in the past it was more difficult to differentiate between normal and cancerous tissue, leading to higher misdiagnosis and therefore more breast cancers being missed. As it’s still trickier to differentiate between benign and new malign lumps, if you do have lumpy breasts, you need to be more vigilant and report any changes to your GP.
#Myth 10 Mammograms expose you to radiation so increase your risk of breast cancer
The amount of radiation you are exposed to with a mammogram is so small that the risks are completely outweighed by the huge preventative benefits of getting a regular screening. Mammograms can identify lumps and other changes long before they can be detected by manual breast checks and other methods and it’s true that the earlier changes are caught the better your chances of a positive outcome.
This information has been provided by Cancer Research UK, Nuffield Health and The National Cancer Institute (USA).