The Truth About Breast Cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be scary, especially if you believe all of the myths that have been circulating for decades. You may have heard some of the following breast cancer myths from your family, co-workers or even the media, but hopefully knowing the truth about the disease will bring you comfort.  Dr. Nikita Shah, medical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, helps identify 10 of the biggest breast cancer myths and sorts the truth from fiction:

1. Myth:  Only Women with a Family History of Breast Cancer are at Risk.

Fact:  A family history of breast cancer can increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, but more than 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no history of the disease in their families.

2. Myth:  All Breast Lumps are Cancerous.

Fact:  Fortunately, approximately 80 percent of lumps are caused by non-cancerous changes in the breast.  However, it is still important to report any breast abnormalities to your doctor.

3. Myth:  Small-Breasted Women Cannot Get Breast Cancer.

Fact:  The amount of breast tissue a woman has does NOT affect her risk of developing breast cancer.

4. Myth:  Antiperspirants or Antiperspirant/Deodorant Combinations are a Leading Cause of Breast Cancer.

Fact:  Antiperspirants do NOT cause breast cancer.  The myth suggests antiperspirants prevent the body from purging dangerous toxins, thus allowing the toxins to be deposited in the lymph nodes causing cancer.  Sweat is actually made up of a combination of 99.9 percent water, sodium, potassium and magnesium – not dangerous toxins.

5. Myth:  Breast-Feeding Causes Breast Cancer.

Fact:  Breast-feeding does not cause breast cancer.  In fact, some preliminary studies suggest breast-feeding may actually decrease a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

6. Myth:  Underwire Bras Cause Breast Cancer.

Fact:  Rumors have suggested that underwire bras can constrict the body’s lymphatic system, causing breast cancer.  This link between underwire bras and breast cancer is completely INACCURATE.

7.  Myth:  Birth Control Pills Cause Breast Cancer.

Fact:  Even after prolonged use (10+ years), studies show oral contraceptives do not cause breast cancer.  Birth control pills do contain small amounts of estrogen and progesterone (hormones often linked with increased risk over time), however the amount of these hormones is too small to pose a noteworthy risk.  Today, most women are prescribed “low-dose” formulas which contain less than 50 micrograms of estrogen.  That’s 50 to 100 percent less estrogen than the amount most birth control pills contained before 1975.

8. Myth:  Breast Cancer Always Presents Itself in the Form of a Lump.

Fact:  A breast lump can certainly be a sign of breast cancer (as well as a number of non-cancerous conditions), but not all women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will have a noticeable lump. That is why it is extremely important to conduct a monthly breast self-exam to look for any change in size, shape or symmetry of your breast, any dimpling, puckering or indentation in the breast, redness or scaliness of the nipple or nipple tenderness or pain. 

9. Myth:  If a Woman is Diagnosed with Breast Cancer, She Will Lose Her Breast.

Fact:  Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will undergo some type of surgery as part of their treatment.  However, breast-conserving therapy (lumpectomy, usually followed by radiation therapy) is becoming a common treatment for early stage breast cancers.  A lumpectomy is the surgical removal of a breast lump and a surrounding margin of normal breast tissue.

10. Myth:  Chemotherapy Will Always Make a Woman’s Hair Fall Out.

Fact:  The loss of hair is only one of the temporary side effects of chemotherapy.  Hair loss and other side effects of chemotherapy depend on the types of drugs administered, their dosage and the length of treatment.

It’s important to remember that a brief conversation with your doctor can answer most of your questions about breast cancer.  He or she can also help you sort through all of the false information you may have encountered and identify the realities of the disease and your specific condition.