Breast Cancer Myths
Now let’s move to this new section, “Breast Cancer Myths” where we will cover the early and the modern myths.
The 1990s brought quality mammograms and standardization of mammography imaging in the US with widespread preventative screening, covered by most insurance plans.
Despite the widespread education on breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions about breast cancer. We will now explore some of these and provide the facts.
The first myth is that breast cancer is a new disease. Well, it is not.
The earliest known case of breast cancer was recorded in on a Papyrus dating in the seventeenth century B.C. (1600 B.C.). This document was found in 1862 by an American Egyptologist, Edwin Smith. The papyrus reported a breast tumor, listed as case 45, and even listed the treatment – cauterization of the diseased tissues.
In 1967, an Italian surgeon stopped in front of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath, which was painted in 1654. He noticed an asymmetry to Bathsheba’s left breast; it seemed distended, swollen near the armpit, discolored, and marked with a distinctive pitting. The physician learned that Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) used his mistress as a model for this painting and she later died after a long illness. It was surmised that the cause of her death was almost certainly breast cancer.
One of the earliest speculations was that breast cancer was the result of an imbalance of body humors. These were considered blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.
Breast cancer was also linked to melancholia, and diet or exorcism were used as possible treatments.
Advancement in medical knowledge soon threw out these old myths. However, they have been replaced by other modern myths and misconceptions.
Abortion and Breast Cancer
Myth vs. Fact: will abortion increase breast cancer risk?
It remains uncertain whether elective abortion increases subsequent breast cancer. Terminating an unintended pregnancy sacrifices the protective effect of 9 months of a full-term delivery. It also results in delayed childbearing. The loss of protection creates the net effect of an increased risk.
Myth vs. Fact: after being cancer free for 65 years, you do not need a mammogram.
Although some organizations are now recommending to stop mammograms at the age of 74, this is based on the health of the woman. The reason behind this recommendation is that at 74, if a woman has multiple health issues, these are likely to be more deadly than a cancer that is often slow growing at that age.
Each woman’s breast cancer risk is based on population averages, however, as a woman ages, her risk of getting cancer also increases.
Women younger than 30 years old present breast cancer at 0.3%, which is the lowest percentage. In their 30’s, women record 3.5% of breast cancer cases, and in their 40’s, they record 18% of diagnosed breast cancer. However, the majority of cancers (77%), are reported by women over the age of 50.
Myth vs. Fact: drinking alcohol will increase breast cancer risk.
Alcohol increases the circulation levels of estrogen, and increases the estrogen metabolism, causing cancers to grow.
Moderate alcohol consumption can cause a modest increase in breast cancer risk. Heavy drinking (4 or more drinks a day) doubles the risks. Women who drank 3 to 4 glasses of wine were 34% more likely to have a recurrence of breast cancer. The risks are greater with post-menopausal and overweight women.
Myth vs. Fact: antiperspirants can cause breast cancer. They prevent the armpits from purging cancer toxins through sweat. These toxins accumulate in the lymph nodes, and the chemicals in the antiperspirants are absorbed by the skin, causing cancer.
A study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute conducted in October 2002 found no increased risk link between the use of deodorants or antiperspirants and breast cancer.
Also, toxins are eliminated by the kidneys, not through sweat. Sweat consists mainly of minerals and water. If the antiperspirant is absorbed and stored in the armpit (as toxins), then cancer should develop in the armpit, not in the breast. The lymph drains away from the breast and not to the breast (through one-way valves).
Breast Cancer is an Emergency
Myth vs. Fact: a diagnosis of breast cancer is an emergency and needs immediate surgery.
It may take six to eight years for a breast cancer developing from one cell to grow to the size of one centimeter. By the time a woman feels a lump, the cancer has been present for eight to ten years. So there is certainly the time to get a second opinion, to read, and to fully explore the treatment options.
Myth vs. Fact: age and not the density of the breast tissue will determine a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
Women with dense breast face a higher risk of missed breast cancer if the mammogram is the only screening tool used.
Recent studies show that the density can be a factor in breast cancer risks in younger women. The breast cancer tends to develop in the dense glandular tissue of the breast. If a woman has dense breast tissue, she would have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than a woman of the same age with fatty breasts.
Breast ultrasonography, digital mammogram, or MRI are more accurate than mammography for assessing the tumor’s size in breasts with a high density.
Personal History of Cancer
Myth vs. Fact: having an ovarian, uterine, or colorectal cancer, increases your risk of developing breast cancer.
Ovarian cancer slightly increases the risk of breast cancer. Uterine (endometrial), or colorectal cancers, double the risks of breast cancer. The risks will increase significantly if the woman also carries the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
Myth vs. Fact: caffeine in coffee will increase symptoms of fibrocystic disease, therefore, breast cancer.
Fibrocystic breast is not a disease. However, the density associated with fibrocystic changes can make breast cancer more difficult to detect with mammography. Caffeine has no effect on breast cancer.
Exercise & Breast Cancer
Myth vs. Fact: exercise will substantially lower the risk of breast cancer.
Girls and young women who exercise regularly between the ages of 12 and 35, have substantially lower risks of breast cancer before menopause compared to those who are less active. The benefit is not linked to the intensity of the exercise, but to the total activity.
This conclusion was the result of a study conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University in Boston. It is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute-2009.
Myth vs. Fact: if breast cancer is not in your family, you will not get it.
80% of the women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. Age – normal wear and tear on the body – is the biggest risk factor for breast cancer.
Myth vs. Fact: only your mothers’ family history of breast cancer can affect your risk.
A half of your genes comes from your mother and the other half comes from your father. Therefore, both parents will influence your cancer risk. However, a man with an abnormal breast cancer gene is less likely to develop breast cancer than a woman with the similar gene.
Myth vs. Fact: having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene means you will get breast cancer.
Only 5 to 10% of breast cancer cases are associated with the abnormal genes. 20 to 60% of patients with these genes will never get breast cancer. And, 80% of the women who get breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors.
Myth vs. Fact: males will not get breast cancer.
Only about 1,600 males get diagnosed with breast cancer each year. However, the incidence of breast cancer in males has increased by 25% in the past 20 years, and breast cancer kills 25% of men who develop it.
Myth vs. Fact: high-fat foods increase breast cancer risk.
Healthy food choice is a good habit. There is no definitive link between fatty foods and breast cancer. However, excess body weight means extra fat, which increases estrogen outside of the ovaries. A high percentage of breast cancer is estrogen receptor positive, and needs estrogen to grow. This means that postmenopausal obesity, and having fat stored in the waist line are linked to increased breast cancer risks.
Hormone Therapy (HT)
Myth vs. Fact: Hormone Therapy (HT) causes breast cancer.
Hormone Therapy (HT) is a combination of estrogen and progestin. If taken for 5 years, it doubles your risks. Estrogen-only therapy carries a lower risk of breast cancer, but increases risks of endometrial cancer. The HT-associated risk returns to normal within 2 years after stopping HT.
The Women’s Health Initiative study (WHI) conducted on women over 60 advises low doses for the shortest possible time.
Injury to the Breast
Myth vs. Fact: trauma or injury of the breast can cause cancer.
Trauma or injury can cause a hematoma or fat necrosis, and the signs and symptoms can be mistaken for a lump or an abnormal scarring. When the body attempts to repair the damaged breast tissue, the affected area may sometimes be replaced with a firm scar tissue. Also, a cancer can be found after the injury, but the two events are not related.
Lumps & Breast Cancer
Myth vs. Fact: all lumps are cancerous.
The majority of breast lumps are benign. Lumps can be a sign of breast cancer, but the aim is to find the cancerous tumor before it gets large enough to be felt as a palpable lump. In addition, please keep in mind that breast cancer can be present without any symptoms.
Magnetic Field Exposure
Myth vs. Fact: electromagnetic fields can cause breast cancer.
Electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) are emitted from devices that produce, transmit, or use electric power. Some sources of EMFs are power lines, transmitters, and household electronics like televisions, microwave ovens, and electric blankets.
Over the past 15 years, there have been several studies evaluating children’s and adults’ residential exposures to electric and magnetic fields in relation to risks of brain cancer, leukemias, lymphomas, and breast cancer. Most findings have been inconclusive.
To limit exposures to EMFs, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recommends increasing the space between devices that emit EMFs and yourself, and discouraging children from playing near power lines.
Myth vs. Fact: mammography is 100% accurate.
Mammography is the most accurate screening tool for breast cancer. It detects 85 to 90% of all breast cancers. However, the accuracy is helped by: BSE and CBE, regular comparison studies, regular mammograms, using adjunctive imaging therapy, and the skills of the radiologists and the technologists.
If a patient has a lump or other change, and the mammogram is “negative” (interpreted as not suspicious or cancerous), the patient should still pursue that finding with her physician.
Myth vs. Fact: mammograms are worthless for younger patients and will not lower a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer.
The sensitivity of the mammogram varies with the breast tissue type and with age. Studies on regular screening of younger women are often inconclusive because of the density of the younger breast.
Other factors to consider are: the ability of the radiologist, the utilization of additional imaging, adjunctive modalities, and comparison studies.
Myth vs. Fact: nipple discharge is always cancerous.
Most nipple discharges do not indicate a cancerous condition. Up to 60% of women experience nipple discharge during breast self-examination. Only 10% of all nipple discharges are abnormal.
Clear, milky, yellow, and green discharges, are mostly normal. Bloody, brown, or brackish discharges, are mostly abnormal but can be associated with non-cancerous papillomas.
20% of women experience nipple discharge during self-examination. Most bloody discharges are due to non-cancerous papillomas. Women should report any worrisome nipple discharge to their physician for clinical examination.
Nipple discharge may be a concern if it is:
- Bloody or watery (serous) with a red, pink, or brown color
- Sticky or brown to black (opalescent)
- Appears spontaneously without squeezing the nipple
Myth vs. Fact: the birth control pill increases breast cancer risk.
Older birth control pills were associated with a slight increased risk. The modern birth control pill is not associated with any cancer risk, even after prolonged use. The exception is for women carrying the BRCA1 gene. In such case, the pill can increase breast cancer risk. Also, women younger than 21 can have an increased risk if the pill is taken over 10 years.
Women at a high risk for breast cancer should discuss any concerns about oral contraceptives with their physicians.
Myth vs. Fact: a mastectomy guarantees that the cancer will not recur at the site of the mastectomy.
Mastectomy (removal of the affected breast) does not guarantee that the breast cancer will not recur.
Many women who have a modified radical mastectomy also undergo axillary lymph node dissection (removal of the underarm lymph nodes) to ensure that the cancer has not spread beyond the breast.
8 to 10 percent of women will have a recurrence in the scar after a mastectomy, and there is also a possibility that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, or other areas of the body.
Myth vs. Fact: early menarche, with onset of menstruation before the age of 12 increases breast cancer risk.
An early onset of menstruation means a longer lifetime exposure to estrogen, which could increase your risk of breast cancer.
Myth vs. Fact: late menopause increases your breast cancer risk.
Breast cancer risk rises by about 3 percent for each year of delayed menopause. “Delayed” means onset after the age of 51, which is the average age of menopause for women in the United States.
Painful Breast Lump
Myth vs. Fact: a painful breast lump is always benign.
Bilateral breast pain is less likely to be associated with breast cancer than unilateral breast pain. However, 10% of invasive breast cancers are associated with pain. On the other hand, pain may accompany a breast lump. Therefore, breast pain must be investigated because it can be caused by a variety of conditions.
Myth vs. Fact: pollutants such as chemicals can cause breast cancer.
Powerful evidence indicates that there is a connection between chemicals and breast cancer. However, there have been no definitive answers from the studies to date.
Myth vs. Fact: women who have had a breast cancer should not become pregnant, because the high estrogen levels during pregnancy will cause cancers to grow.
The hormonal and metabolic changes that occur during pregnancy have not been shown to have any noticeable effects on long-term breast cancer prognosis. Breast cancer survivors should consult their physicians before planning a pregnancy.
Pregnancy & Breast Feeding
Myths vs. Fact: never having children increases your breast cancer risk, and breast feeding decreases it.
Never having children or giving birth at a later age nearly doubles the risk of breast cancer. On the other hand, breastfeeding at any age lowers the risk of breast cancer.
Myth vs. Fact: a prophylactic mastectomy will prevent breast cancer.
Prophylactic mastectomy is a preventive procedure in which one or both of the breasts are removed in women who are at very high risk for developing breast cancer. Some studies have shown that prophylactic mastectomy can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 90%.
Breast tissue also extends up towards the neck, under the arms, and to the chest wall. A woman is at risk of developing breast cancer as long as the breast tissue remains in the body.
Myth vs. Fact: having a risk factor for breast cancer means that you will get it for sure.
Even if you have a strong risk factor, risk factors give only the probability of occurrence of the breast cancer, and are not a certainty. Also, 80% of women who get breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors.
Statistic “One in Eight”
Myth vs. Fact: the statistic “one in eight women will develop breast cancer”, means that if eight women are randomly selected, then one of those eight women is guaranteed to get breast cancer.
The one-in-eight-women is calculated over a lifetime to age ninety-five. If researchers were to follow a large group of girls born today and track them until they became ninety-five years old, then one out of every eight of those girls (approximately 12.5%) would develop breast cancer sometime in her lifetime. The one-in-eight risk is a cumulative lifetime risk of developing breast cancer if you live at least to the age of 95.
Stress or Type-A Personality
Myth vs. Fact: stressful events lead to cancer which means that type A personalities are more prone to develop breast cancer.
The National Cancer Institute & British Medical Journal studies found no conclusive correlation between the stress and breast cancer, or even the recurrence of the disease.
Classic type-A personality traits are ambitiousness, competitiveness and aggressiveness.
Race and Breast Cancer
Myth vs. Fact: black women get a more aggressive form of breast cancer.
African-American women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women. It was proven that the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer was 71% for African American females, and 86% for white females. Experts attribute the difference to poorer access to health care among the black people, and poor treatment planning because the majority of breast cancer among them is not estrogen receptor positive.
Myth vs. Fact: white women have a higher incidence of breast cancer.
The rate of diagnosis is higher among white women but as a group, white, Hawaiian, and black women have the highest rates of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. The lowest rates occur among American-Indian, Vietnamese, and Korean women.
Some researchers and advocates for women with the disease say there’s a correlation between breast cancer incidence and industrial pollutants.
Myth vs. Fact: past radiation treatment will increase your breast cancer risk.
Women who have undergone radiation therapy for Hodgkin’s disease, for example, are significantly more likely to develop breast cancer. In fact, some experts recommend early mammography screening after Hodgkin’s. Studies suggest that this could be due to the radiation delivered to the breast tissue during treatment for Hodgkin’s disease.
Multiple scoliosis imaging during the teenage years can also expose the young breast tissue to radiation.
Myth vs. Fact: tight bras will constrict the lymphatic system, allowing toxins to accumulate in the breast tissue.
This myth started from a 1995-book titled “Dressed to Kill”, by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer. The authors claimed that tight bras constrict the lymphatic system, causing cancer-promoting toxins to accumulate in the breast tissue. As evidence, they pointed out that breast cancer rates are higher in Western societies, where bra use is more common. Although, experts say “Dressed to kill” does not consider other variables such as diet and environment, age, family history, obesity, and not having children.
No study has been able to prove this theory. Also, the lymph drains away from your breasts through the lymphatic system, and if there is an infection in the system, this means that there would be a higher incidence of lymph node cancer.