Breast Cancer Myths Debunked

BIDMC Contributor

OCTOBER 01, 2018

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Can a woman get breast cancer if there’s no history of it in her family? Is pain the most common symptom of breast cancer? Is mastectomy a more effective treatment option than lumpectomy?

Ted James, MD, Chief of Breast Surgical Oncology and Co-Director of the BreastCare Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, discusses six common myths about breast cancer.

Myth #1 - I’m too young (or too old) to get breast cancer.

Dr. James: A woman can get breast cancer at almost any age in her lifetime. Most breast cancer will not appear until about age 40, however, there are certainly cases of women in their 20s who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Statistics show that 25 percent of women with breast cancer are younger than 50 years old.

Older women are more likely to develop breast cancer since the risk of this disease increases with age. Essentially, you’re never too young or too old to get breast cancer. While a breast lump in a younger woman is much less likely to be cancer than a lump in an older woman, it can be cancer and needs to be evaluated.

Myth #2 - I can’t get breast cancer because it doesn’t run in my family.

Dr. James: Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer is certainly a known risk factor, but just because no one else in your family has had these cancers does not mean that you won’t develop breast cancer. An estimated 80-90 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have an affected family member like a mother, sister or daughter.

Myth #3 – I don’t feel a lump or pain in my breasts so I don’t have breast cancer.

Dr. James: A lump may indicate a number of breast conditions, including breast cancer, but it is not the only symptom. Other subtle changes from breast cancer may occur long before anyone can feel a lump in your breast. Pain is actually an uncommon finding in most cases of breast cancer, so you cannot rely on pain as an early warning system. In fact, most cases of early-stage breast cancer are not associated with any symptoms or physical change that you or your doctor will be able to identify in your breast.

Myth #4 – I can get breast cancer from using antiperspirants/deodorant and wearing underwire bras.

Dr. James: Research has not shown that underwire bras and antiperspirants are a known cause of breast cancer. Apprehension about underwire bras and antiperspirants usually involves concerns about blocking the lymphatic system and allowing toxins to accumulate in the breast leading to cancer. The reality is that although breast cancer may invade into the surrounding breast tissue and enter the lymphatic vessels, breast cancer typically arises from within the milk ducts in the breast and not from the lymphatic system. Now, there is research exploring the consequence of parabens used in some antiperspirants on breast cancer risk, however, there are no conclusive findings.

Myth #5 - I can get breast cancer from the radiation in mammograms

Dr. James: Although mammography involves radiation, studies show that the small amount from routine mammograms is extremely unlikely to cause cancer. Given the low doses, the average woman is far more likely to have her life saved by getting a mammogram.

Myth #6 – If I’m diagnosed with breast cancer, removing the entire breast (mastectomy) means a better chance of surviving compared to having a lumpectomy with radiation therapy.

Dr. James: There are certain circumstances where a mastectomy may be a better option. These may include cases where there is a genetic predisposition to breast cancer (e.g., BRCA gene), advanced breast cancer (e.g., inflammatory breast cancer), or when the cancer is very large or spread throughout the breast. However, most women with early-stage breast cancer will have the option of both lumpectomy and mastectomy.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is one of five academic centers leading the BFOR (BRCA Founder Outreach Study) research study that seeks to increase access to testing for one of the most common tests for hereditary cancer, BRCA genetic mutations. These mutations of BRCA genes are associated with greater risks for several types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer.

The study will offer women and men of Ashkenazi Jewish (Eastern European) ancestry, age 25 or older, genetic testing for common BRCA mutations. This group is at least ten times more likely than the general population to inherit certain kinds of BRCA mutations.

BFOR will provide patients, families, and their doctors with better information to make important decisions about their health care. This information will help thousands of people to reduce their cancer risks.

Get more information or register for the study.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.