Confusing Breast Cancer Myths, Explained!

The fight against breast cancer has become one of the most publicized health awareness campaigns in history. This high profile has had a tremendous impact on educating people about the disease, but the movement's popularity, especially in the Internet Age, has also lead to an overwhelming amount of misinformation. As myths spread across the Web, women (and even men) have become confused about their risks and when they should be tested.

For example, more than 90 percent of women about to undergo a mammogram don’t know what their breast cancer risk is, often wildly overestimating or underestimating the threat, according to a startling new survey presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Breast Cancer Symposium 2013.

Patients at 21 New York breast-imaging centers were asked to estimate both their lifetime risk and personal breast cancer risk factors. The researchers calculated each woman’s actual risk and compared it to her estimate. Only 9.4 percent of the women accurately estimated their danger.

Of the rest, 44.7 percent underestimated their risk, while the other 45.9 percent overestimated it. Overall, the vast majority of the women surveyed “had no idea of what risk means and what their risk factors were,” reported William Poller, MD, of Allegheny General Hospital, who presented the findings at the ASCO symposium. 

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Of the nearly 10,000 women included in the study:

  • 2,131 estimated that their lifetime risk for breast cancer was 0 to 1 percent.
  • 2,581 thought that their risk was higher than 50 percent.
  • 223 guessed that their risk was greater than 90 percent.

Actually, about 12 percent of women will develop the disease during their lifetime, reports Katherine Lee, MD, a breast specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Breast Center. However, having certain risk factors can magnify the danger.

Here is the truth behind several popular breast cancer myths.

Myth: Breast cancer kills more women than heart disease.

Fact: Heart disease, the leading cause of death for American women, kills 10 times more women (about 400,000) each year than breast cancer does (about 40,000), says Dr. Lee. In fact, heart disease claims the lives of more women than all forms of cancer combined. Yet only one in five women know that heart disease is their biggest health threat.

Myth: Breast cancer mainly strikes women with a family history of the disease.

Fact: Inherited factors only account for about 10 percent of breast cancer cases, Dr. Lee reports. Instead, the leading risk factors for the disease are being female and getting older, because risk rises with age. Two out of three cases of invasive breast cancer occur in women ages 55 or older.

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Myth: Small-breasted women are less likely to get breast cancer.

Fact: Breast size has absolutely no influence on the likelihood of developing breast cancer. What matters is breast density, because women with dense breast tissue are at increased risk. Compounding the problem, dense breast tissue can also make mammograms less accurate, meaning that cancer may not be caught as early. If you’re 40 or older and have dense breasts, Dr. Lee recommends talking to your doctor about combining an additional imaging modality, such as breast ultrasound or MRI, with mammography. Your medical provider may also advise more frequent screenings.

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Myth: Breast cancer only affects women.

Fact: Each year, about 2,200 men are diagnosed with breast cancer and 410 die from it. While the risk is small, men who develop the disease have a higher rate of mortality than women, largely because they often assume that the lump couldn’t be breast cancer, reports the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

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Myth: Wearing antiperspirant raises the threat of breast cancer.

Fact: “This claim has been circulating on the Internet for about 15 years, with some people worrying that parabens [preservatives used in some antiperspirants] might cause breast cancer because they have some estrogen-like properties,” says Dr. Lee. “However, there’s no scientific evidence linking parabens, which are also found in many other personal care products (such as lotions and cosmetics), to breast cancer.” For those who still prefer natural antiperspirants, there are companies that sell paraben-free products.

Myth: Breast implants can hike your cancer risk.

Fact: Saline or silicone breast implants are not linked to higher risk, says Dr. Lee. However, implants may make breast cancer harder to detect with a mammogram, leading to later diagnosis.

Myth: If you have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, breast cancer is inevitable.

Fact: Carriers of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations have a greatly increased risk for the disease that can be as high as 80 percent in some families, according to the American Cancer Society. On average, however, the risk associated with the BRCA1 gene is 55 to 65 percent, while the risk linked to BRCA2 mutations is about 45 percent. Because these risks are high, it’s increasingly common for healthy carriers to have preventive double mastectomies, as Angelina Jolie did. Another strategy is to be screened more frequently, with the goal of catching cancer at the earliest, most treatable stage, if it occurs.

Myth: After a double mastectomy, it’s impossible to get breast cancer.

Fact: Some patients who have undergone breast removal still develop the disease, typically along the scar line from the surgery. However, this is relatively rare, says Dr. Lee. Women who have had a double mastectomy, with or without breast reconstruction, should alert their doctors to any lumps or other changes.

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