Nearly everyday, I am asked questions about breast cancer. What amazes me is the omnipresent myths and assumptions (there are soooo many!) made about the disease. Countless times each week, I’m asked: “Is such-and-such true?” “Is it not?”
Recently, I came across a great article on Everyday Health (one of my favorite websites) in which oncologist Kandace McGuire explains 12 myths of breast cancer quite beautifully and succintly (Silver Lining). I thought I’d share these with you.
Myth No. 1: You Have to Have a Family History to Get Cancer
“Women who don’t have a family history of breast cancer are surprised when they get breast cancer,” says McGuire. Family history is a well-established risk factor — so well-established that some women may believe it is the only risk factor, but it’s not. “Less than 10 percent of breast cancer patients get it because of a familial history,” she explains.
Myth No. 2: There’s Nothing You Can Do About an Inherited Risk
A strong family history is a cancer risk factor, but just because women in your family have had breast cancer does not mean you are destined to get it. Genetic testing will help you understand your inherited risk and allow you to make choices about your future care. Additionally, McGuire says that research shows that a low-fat diet combined with physical activity and moderate alcohol consumption (fewer than two drinks per day) reduces breast cancer risk. “If you have a family history, you should do everything that you can to decrease your risk,” she advises.
Myth No. 3: Double Mastectomy Prevents a Return of Breast Cancer
Removing a breast that has not had breast cancer does prevent breast cancer in that breast, but removing a breast that already has cancer still leaves you with a 3 to 4 percent risk of recurrence. “Your survival is based on the first cancer,” says McGuire, not on the removal of additional breast tissue.
Myth No. 4: Underwire Bras Cause Breast Cancer
“That’s absolutely untrue,” says breast surgical oncologist Kandace McGuire, MD, of the Breast Cancer Program of Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa. Dr. McGuire explains that this is based on an old theory that an underwire bra would reduce lymphatic drainage and increase breast cancer risk. “It was not based on any data whatsoever,” she says. Constriction of the breast, whether from an underwire bra or any kind of compression garment, does not affect breast cancer risk.
Myth No. 5: Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer
“There have been no studies to suggest a link between antiperspirants and breast cancer,” says McGuire. There are two possible points of origin for this cancer myth:
- Parabens. These chemical preservatives are used in some antiperspirants and some other products. They may increase estrogen levels, which is linked to breast cancer risk. But there is “no decisive link,” says McGuire. Check ingredient labels if you are concerned. Look for the ingredients methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben. However, most brands no longer include these ingredients.
- Mammogram preparation. Antiperspirants contain some aluminum, which may show up on mammograms as a false-positive result. “One thing that is important for women to know is that when they go for their mammograms, they shouldn’t wear antiperspirants,” advises McGuire.
Overall, the National Cancer Institute does not advise limiting the use of antiperspirants, but does say more research is needed in this area.
Myth No. 6: Radiation From Screening Tests Causes Cancer
Although mammograms do give off a small amount of radiation, “the radiation dose in a mammogram is less than in a standard chest X-ray,” says McGuire. “It is such a low level that it wouldn’t increase breast cancer risk.” Women should also know that MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and ultrasounds, which may also be used to screen for breast cancer in some women, contain no radiation at all.
Myth No. 7: Exposure to Air Causes Cancer to Spread
McGuire shares a myth she often hears from worried patients — cutting into a cancer and exposing it to air causes the cancer to spread. “That is untrue as well,” she stresses. Patients are naturally worried because cancer does have the potential to spread (called metastasis), but it is not caused by your cancer surgeon cutting into a tumor for a biopsy or to remove it.
Myth No. 8: Breast Cancer Occurs Only in Older Women
“Increasing age is a risk factor for breast cancer, so the older you are the more likely you are to get breast cancer,” says McGuire. However, that doesn’t mean younger women aren’t vulnerable. Breast cancer can be diagnosed at any age. “It tends to be more aggressive in younger women,” she adds. (I was 39 when I was diagnosed.)
Myth No. 9: Plastic Surgery Causes Breast Cancer
The good news for women who want to enhance or reduce their bust size is that there is no link between breast plastic surgery and increased breast cancer risk. Implants can make mammograms more difficult, but they do not make cancer more likely. Women who have breast reduction surgery may actually see a decrease in breast cancer risk. “Getting a breast reduction can reduce your risk of breast cancer by about 60 percent, depending on how much they take,” says McGuire.
Myth No. 10: Mammograms Aren’t Accurate Anyway, So Why Bother?
Recent controversy about the right time for women to begin having mammograms — whether they should begin at age 40 or age 50 — has left some women feeling the screening test may not be worthwhile.
Younger women often have denser breast tissue than older women, who have more fat tissue in the breast. “The denser your breasts are, the less accurate your mammogram is going to be,” acknowledges McGuire, but adds, “Having a bad mammogram is better than having none. It’s the only thing that we’ve shown thus far to reduce the mortality from breast cancer.”
Myth No. 11: Self-Exams Aren’t Necessary
Actually, the research is inconclusive on this question. “Most of the women that I talk to in the office are not doing self-exams. But there’s no downside — it’s cheap and easy to do,” says McGuire, who says that only good things can come from being familiar with the shape of your own breasts. (This is how I found my FBC, by the way!)
Myth No. 12: Abortion and Miscarriage Increase Breast Cancer Risk
While there is some evidence that having children before the age of 30 can reduce the risk of breast cancer, there is no research to support the idea that the early end of a pregnancy through miscarriage or abortion could increase breast cancer risk.
Armed with these facts — not myths — you will be better able to reduce your risk and plan your treatment if you develop breast cancer (Silver Lining!).